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Greene: Selfies

I took my first “selfie” recently, and then deleted it. I may look my best standing in the bathroom brushing my teeth –but it’s not an image I’m ready to share on the Internet.
 

To some, “selfies” are evidence of our runaway narcissism. Certainly, if an extra-terrestrial ever traveled our Cloud, she’d be baffled by the millions of hugging humans posing with motorcycles, children or oversized pumpkins.

Lewis Thomas suggests in The Lives of a Cell, that if we’re going to send a message out into space, let it be Bach. That would be putting our best foot forward, a kind of cosmic “Show and Tell”.

By the way, The Voyager Golden Record, launched into space in 1977, does contain Bach, as well as Mozart and Chuck Berry.

“Selfies” may represent endless “Show and Tell”, designed to inspire envy, to convince our fellows that our lives are just a bit better than theirs: more friends, more achievement, more significance.

Alternatively, the blog Reddit.com recommends bringing a Polaroid camera when traveling in developing countries in order to give pictures to the subjects of one’s photos. Many of the people encountered had never owned an image of loved ones or themselves, and were delighted to have one.

Of course, the argument goes that “selfies” are about self-regard only. And for some, that may be the case. I suspect that we New Englanders are a bit quicker to experience guilt on this subject. I can almost feel the disapproval of Puritan forebears.

But anything that makes us stop, boosting our attention to the marvel of the here and now is important. It all goes so fast.

I treasure the one picture I have of my great grandmother, posing in somber serenity, having just graduated from Indiana University. She was unaware that before a decade was out, she’d die, leaving my five year old grandmother in the hands of very unsympathetic relatives.

Susan Sontag wrote that photography objectifies experience, making experience something you can own. This sounds morally ominous. Yet, visiting a nursing home, I see that memories are precious, and highly evanescent.

Jeanette Winterson once said that we need to be loved in order to grow up. So maybe self-love is part of that. Perhaps condemning this one vanity is like trying to outlaw one step in a lifelong process, like banishing adolescence. It’s tempting to just chuck all that acne and self-consciousness. But adolescence, however unpleasant, is a necessary step between childhood and adult life. Some people get stuck, but the vast majority eventually move on to more interesting things.

As our world speeds up, maybe we need reassurance that we have indeed existed, each of us, one of seven billion, a special little snowflake, melting fast.