To be, or not to be, that is the question. So begins perhaps the most famous literary quote of all time. It's the opening phrase of a soliloquy in William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 1). While interpretations of the meaning of this famous phrase vary, it seems clear that Hamlet is wrestling with profound internal dissonance as he contemplates not just the meaning of life, but the meaning of his life at this particular point in time. What is life for? Where is meaning and purpose to be found? Can one be passive in the face of injustice and suffering? Can one act, or is such action futile or even fatal?
Some 400 years have passed since Hamlet first voiced this most fundamental and wrenching question on stage. 400 years of human achievement and human debauchery. Is it still a valid question for those who contemplate life's meaning?
Actually, it seems to me that the question the Millennial's ask (also known as Generation Y) is whether or not life can be trusted. To be or not to be is a question for an individual; someone who is disconnected and maybe disenfranchised. It's not a question for anyone who loves or is loved. For us it's not so much about physical or material existence but about the quality of our life and the manner of our living and our relationships. Are we real? Do we allow people to see us as we are? Do we struggle in the open and bleed when we're wounded? Or do we cover up? Hide behind the lines? Craft an image that we think we want to be and then manufacture an identity that measures up? Is it all about what things appear to be, or what they really are? Do we even know what they are, or are we so lost in the maze of fantasy that we can't distinguish between truth and fiction?
Social scientists are beginning to investigate the effects of social media and networking on identity. Does Facebook allow us to be "someone else" - a fabrication of an identity that we aspire to? Or does it allow us to be more genuinely "ourself" than is possible in more traditional kinds of face to face networks?
To be or not to be. Hm. Imagine that you are a person with a "disability". Maybe it's a physical disability - something readily apparent, like a withered arm or a hunched back or a scar on your face. You may feel that this feature defines you when you are in public - it's the first thing people notice about you. Or maybe it's an intellectual or emotional disability - a mental illness or a learning issue. Even though it may not be as obvious as a physical condition, it too can become a label that obscures your true identity and value. Social media sites like Facebook may actually allow you to BE who you are in a much more holistic sense.
I came across an article today that addresses this issue: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-21084945 - and it's making me think about social media in a new light. I realize that I tend to view social media from one particular vantage point and it's easy to assume that my experience is somehow authoritative. But as I struggle to understand the pain and frustration that people on the fringes of society experience, I'm reminded that my experience is NOT the only gauge.
To be inclusive in a "love your neighbour as yourself" sort of way requires that I don't let my own experience define the boundaries for what is right or just or fair. Certainly there are down sides to technology and social media, but there are up sides too. Fact is, we all struggle to understand ourselves and to find our place in the world. It's not easy. Perhaps it would be fair to say that we all have to negotiate and manage our identities. And social media is just one more venue. When we are truly ourselves - publicly and privately - and when we can see the heart of each person in our network, and not just their appearance or ability/disability, maybe we'll spend less time contemplating Hamlet's question and more time just BEING and encouraging others to also BE.