Transparent Thoughts

I had a thought the other day. There is this man, a friend of a friend. As far as I can tell, he is a kind husband, an attentive father, and a model church-going citizen. For all intents and purposes, I would regard him as a sound and reasonable fellow — even a good man — if not for his psychotic screeds online. He regularly retreats to his persona to publish rant after rant, some of them in video format, about things. I use the word ‘things‘ because they are most often non sequitur — idle fluctuations of his neural network. Sometimes there is esoteric humor in them, sure, but more often they are a painful view into this man’s thoughts.

Thinking is very important. Thoughts, however, are a mixed bag. Thoughts can be dramatic, fleeting, brilliant, frightening, tepid — in fact, they can be most adjectives. But they are important. Thoughts are the building blocks for ideas and emotions, relationships and success. They are also a fertile ground for testing erotic and taboo thoughts — a plane for pushing the mental envelope. We ask, “why shouldn’t I rule the world? Could this stranger make a good wife? what if I had bomb in my stomach?” Some thoughts are good and others sinful. We ask much of our minds because, unlike animals, we have the ability to explore concepts and quite literally divine solutions: we have logos. But oh so many of our thoughts are embarrassing and dull: “My foot itches. I wish I had a burrito right now. Where exactly is Moldova?” If you are married or have a close friend, you too have weathered both of these types of thoughts with a smile: either highly inappropriate or excruciatingly boring. In fact, you love these thoughts because they demonstrate an intimacy and vulnerability that is essential to friendship.

Nowadays, so many thoughts seem divorced of intimacy and are unrequited. Online media make thoughts available instantly, on-demand, and even neatly categorizes them for us. Facebook has our family/friends thoughts, Twitter has our newsy political thoughts, and LinkedIn has our professional thoughts. There is an avenue and audience for every thought and we are encouraged by the performance of others to contrast our own thoughts, lest we paint a dull picture of our own spectacle of a life. If I want to know all of my friend’s most intimate thoughts, all I need is his willingness to share and an internet connection. The problem is two-fold: first, why does he share so much? and then, why do I care? The second question is easier to answer: I love my friend and desire some level of intimacy with him. The first question demands more attention.

An effusive sharing of one’s self is hard to describe by any other word except self-ish. I think this is why so many online personalities have such abrasive, unlikeable personalities in real life. Putting aside those on the autistic spectrum, of which I count myself, I do not believe media harms an individual or darkens the soul. It is quite the opposite: individuals who are most prone to over-sharing exhibit a very specific selfishness that causes them to value their own thoughts above others. Plus, generating constant content weighs on the brain. Smart phones allow us a certain measure of camouflage, but when you do catch someone writing an online screed — whether at work or on the playground — you clearly see the personal encounter lost at the expense of a masturbatory cortisol shot. Perish the thought of actually reading the screed.

Grocery lists and love-letters rarely make it into history books. For this reason, I find it unlikely that history students in the future will look back on our online correspondence and wince — though historians certainly will. However, I do fear that my grandchildren will view our era as a break from history. Schoolbooks might call it the “Age of Transparent Thinking,” marking the moment when everyone began sharing everything they thought with everyone else. Going back to that deranged friend of a friend: I cannot shake the feeling that, even fifty years ago, I would have been spared his strange neurological flights, at least outside of the tavern. We might have been great friends, and, at the very least, we might share enough intimacy to laugh off each other’s bizarre thoughts. We may get there still, but it will be entirely my effort if we do.

Perhaps untethered thoughts are not healthy to share with strangers and, perhaps, all this sharing is a gigantic waste of time. Instead, call your mom and check in. It has been a little while and she misses you.