This is Part 3 of a series on the subject of Teen Depression and Suicide. The impetus was an opportunity to speak at a recent workshop on the subject in the context of the “religious.” I spoke at a similar event last year and was graciously invited back. The audience was not necessarily Christian or religious. But the planners determined the need to include a “religious” perspective. You may read Part 1 and Part 2.
What is real? I think it was listening to a Shane Hipps podcast several years ago where I first heard the idea of “electronic extension of ourselves.” Before the onslaught of social media platforms the internet tipped us toward the creation of alternate personas. Blogger, among others, afforded a person the privilege to carve out a space for himself or herself for the world to “hear.”
In a short span of time, online developments at one time narrowed and expanded the options for people, even young people, to self-identify in peculiar ways. Avatars and “handles” maintained some sense of insularity. A person could initiate or respond to others without the fear of online reprisals.
But, when MySpace and Facebook became the social media communities of choice, the invitation was to post “yourself.” However, since I control the information on my Facebook page, I now may present the best image of myself for all to see. The parts I want to keep from you may now be safely kept. Unless of course you have been photographed doing something you may one day regret when facing your first job interview. But, consequences do not rise to the level of warning in social media applications until the damage is done. And, a permanent record is kept. Always.
There really are no “takebacks” online. Cached information is logged somewhere. And, someone may always find a way to retrieve it. Cache is the black box of our online lives. Teenagers rarely give any thought to this. But, they do give thought to how they want people to perceive them online. What they do not give thought to, nor do most of us, is just how this affects our self-perception and the expression of our personhood.
Bullying, ridicule, and shaming often result when someone else challenges your online persona. Unprepared for these unintended consequences often leave teens hurt in ways they never imagined. Before the advent of the Internet a teen might exclaim, “Now everyone will know.” Since the development of social media platforms a teen may shriek, “Now the whole world will know.” There is no safety now. No place to quiet the self in the face of the created self.
I could not help but think of Vincent Van Gogh. Google “Van Gogh and self-portrait.” You will find an array of self-portriats showing his left side dressed in different attire. You will also find self-portraits of his right side. There may even be one after he attempted to cut off his ear. These self-portraits were similar to our efforts to portray ourselves the way we hope others will see us. Recently I read where Lacan took Descartes maxim and made an adjustment.
Descartes’ cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am – was altered by Lacan. “What I think I am , therefore I am.” And, after all how many of you have tried to help a teen overcome what they think of themselves? Therein lies a move we cannot dismiss. After all, depression is at least in part a wrestling with what I think of myself and how that is perceived by others. That there is no escape from this thinking creates a tendency toward despair. A move often leading to self-harm.
Ours is the task of helping teens think through personhood. Rather than dis-missing teens as people, we make the move to honor them. We who follow Jesus cannot help but point to the person of Jesus as a guide for what humanity may aim for in relationships with all people. Some will be quick to level the charge of moralism. However, we mean in pointing to Jesus as a guide for humanity in the same sense Dallas Willard contends that Jesus’ humanity actually attunes us to our brokenness and his restoration of the image of God in us via his life, death, and resurrection.
We do not “preach” at teens with a dogma about personhood. Instead, we engage them with love and mercy in the face of their dilemmas and walk with them as people sharing the same journey. We live with them as Jesus would; a move that forces us to reckon with the Way of Jesus in our own lives.