Rabbi Jared H. Saks
Rosh Hashanah 5778. September 21, 2017 – 1 Tishrei 5778
Kirk and I post a lot of pictures of Zak on Facebook. I mean, a lot of pictures. So much of his life is documented on our Facebook pages and yet, we don’t post the whole story. Many of our friends have asked us, “Is he really always that happy?” We are fortunate. Zak is a happy, easy-going kid, but of course he’s not always that happy. A few months ago, we went to dinner at a friends’ home. When we arrived, Zak was sound asleep in his car seat, so we carried him in, left him in the car seat, and began our evening with Sarah and Karl. Sarah has a laugh that can be heard from miles away and, in spite of her erupting into laughter more than once, Zak didn’t make a peep. Sarah asked us, “Does he always sleep so well? Is he perfect?” We assured her that he wasn’t and even pulled out our phones to show her a picture we’d taken of him screaming at the top of his lungs about something earlier that week. Later, when Zak awoke with quite a fuss and began crying, Sarah and Karl were reassured that, yes, he is a normal child. He can scream and cry with the best of them. And now that he’s fewer than two weeks away from two years old, he’s mastering that skill.
The truth is that what we post to Facebook – about Zak, about our own lives – is filtered. The same is true for just about everyone. And yet, we often compare our lives to the lives that others curate on Facebook, on other social media, or even in our face-to-face interactions with them as they censor the details of their lives. “We are all dimly aware that everybody else can’t possibly be as successful, rich, attractive, relaxed, intellectual and joyous as they appear to be on Facebook. Yet we can’t help comparing our inner lives with the curated lives of our friends.”
There are a lot of ways in which the story we present to others, be it through social media or our daily interactions, is different than our real-world experiences. “The National Enquirer, a weekly, sells nearly three times as many copies as The Atlantic, a monthly, every year. On Facebook, The Atlantic is 45 times more popular… Americans spend six times as much of their time cleaning dishes as they do golfing. But there are roughly twice as many tweets reporting golfing as there are tweets reporting doing the dishes.” Or, consider musical taste according to Spotify, an internet streaming music service: both men and women have similar interests. But on Facebook, “men seem to underplay their interest in artists considered to more feminine.” While Katy Perry outranks Bob Marley, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Wiz Khalifa on men’s interest on Spotify, all of these male artists have more likes by men on Facebook than Katy Perry does.
Why does this disparity exist? There’s pressure on social media, and in life in general, to look a certain way, to present a particular persona, to be what we think others expect us to be, rather than being our authentic selves. Part of this stems from how society handles the things that we consider embarrassing. For instance, certain health conditions are deemed acceptable while others are the target of mockery and ridicule. While both migraines and irritable bowel syndrome occur at the same rate in American society, about ten-percent of the population, people are far more likely to air their struggles with migraines than with IBS. “None of this behavior is all that new, although the form it takes is. Friends have always showed off to friends. People have always struggled to remind themselves that other people don’t have it as easy as they claim.” When I was working in Minneapolis, the Jewish Domestic Abuse Collaborative had to actively teach that abuse does happen in Jewish homes, because of the common misconception that spousal abuse is not a Jewish issue. Because of this misconception, Jewish victims of abuse are often far less likely to seek help, thinking that they are the only ones coping with an abuser, that there’s something wrong with them. When we compare our inner lives to the outer lives of others, we can often leave ourselves feeling alone, isolated, and without help.
Almost a year ago, a member of our own congregation, Jess Abramson (with whose permission I share this story) confronted head-on the gap between our social media selves and the reality of our lives that we don’t let others see. In December, Jess posted a comment accompanied by a series of photos that were, in large part, the inspiration for this sermon. Jess wrote, “I think it’s so important to celebrate happiness and success, but only sharing our most glamorous moments on social media means we see somewhat fabricated versions of other people in our lives. It’s easy to feel like everyone else is achieving wonderful things while I’m just struggling along, and I doubt I’m the only one who sometimes feels that way. So here’s a collection of my recent failures, mishaps, challenges, and disappointments.” The accompanying photos included four rejection letters, her first parking ticket, and her tears soaking into a friend’s sweatshirt, who would soon be going abroad.
There’s a story told about a king who had no heirs to his throne and was concerned about who would rule after him. He resolved to hold a contest to choose from among all the children in his land whom his successor would be. Each child was given a seed and a ceramic pot in which to plant it, with instructions to plant the seed, water it, care for it, and bring it back after a year’s time, when the king would judge their efforts and choose his heir. Each child returned home. Each planted the seed and each decorated the pot. One child, in particular, was careful to tend to her seed every single day, providing it with ample water and sunlight, talking to it and even singing to it. As the days passed, though, her seed wasn’t growing. At school, the other children spoke of their seeds’ growth and some even brought in their pots to show off their plants, now two, three, and even four feet high.
Eventually, a year had passed and all the children returned to the palace with their decorated pots and their impressive plants. Almost in tears, this one child presented her pot with no plant. The king surveyed all the plants and even though the children were beaming, the king himself did not look all that thrilled with the results. That was, at least, until he approached the child with no plant in her pot. “Where is your plant?” he asked. She said that though she’d watered it, gave it ample sunlight, and talked and sang to it, she had no plant to show for her efforts. It had not sprouted. To everyone’s surprise, the king chose her to be his heir. One day, she’d become the queen.
The other children protested; she hadn’t even grown anything! But the king hushed them and explained that while each of them had brought him a beautiful plant, there was something none of them had known. The seeds they had been given had all been boiled; they were never meant to grow. Most of the children had replaced their seeds, but this one child had not. That was why she was to become the king’s heir.
What is the lesson of this story? “Honesty pays off in the end? Sure. You should try your hardest even if there is no immediate reward? Absolutely. But I think there’s something more to it.” The truth is that all of us are in possession of boiled seeds. We make every effort to nurture those seeds, to provide them with nutrients, light, and water, and despite our best efforts, these seeds do not grow. We struggle with our boiled seeds, trying to tend to them, all the while only seeing the beautiful plants that others have produced, without seeing the boiled seeds that they, too, are carrying around. “All the children were given boiled seeds. How alone they all must have felt—tending every day to something that wasn’t showing any progress when everyone else was able to see the fruits of their labors… or so they thought.” What did they do? They pretended all was well. They kept their struggles from others. The moved through the world with a curated beauty that wasn’t real, that didn’t show their authentic selves. It is so hard to share the experience of our boiled seeds and, yet, we all carry them.
Social media sites offer us the opportunity to selectively post only the best parts of our lives. But this isn’t only about Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat or whatever comes next. It is about the self we see ourselves to be, the self we present to others, the perception of others we get through the self-curation of their lives, and the conflict we feel when these presentations do not line up. “The self we portray to the world is so radically different than the way we actually live in the world.” And this difference, between how we present ourselves and our reality, between how others present themselves and what we know ourselves to be can be so painful.
So, what is the solution? Consider the maxim quoted by members of AA: Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. The problem is, we never see other people’s insides. That is, until now. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a researcher who uses big-data sources to uncover previously hidden behaviors and attitudes, has done research peeking into people’s insides. In his book, Everybody Lies, Stephens-Davidowitz examines the discrepancy between who we claim to be and how we see ourselves through our use of the internet. “Alone with a screen and anonymous, people tend to tell Google things they don’t reveal to social media; they even tell Google things they don’t tell to anybody else. Google offers digital truth serum. The words we type there are more honest than the pictures we present on Facebook or Instagram.”
Consider how people speak about their spouses: “On social media, the top descriptors to complete the phrase, ‘My husband is…’ are ‘the best,’ ‘my best friend,’ ‘amazing,’ ‘the greatest’ and ‘so cute.’ On Google, one of the top five ways to complete that phrase is also ‘amazing.’ So that checks out. The other four: ‘a jerk,’ ‘annoying,’ ‘gay’ and ‘mean.’” Stephens-Davidowitz spent five years learning about people’s darkest and strangest thoughts through Google and social media analytics, all anonymous, but all the data was there. This work may seem grim, to fill five years with learning about the bad feelings others have about themselves. But, as he describes it, there was one striking benefit: he has “consistently felt less alone in [his] insecurities, anxieties, and struggles and desires.” When we better understand others’ full selves, not just their curated selves, it’s hard to take others seemingly perfect lives so seriously. We realize we are not the only ones struggling.
Stephens-Davidowitz offers this advice: “Any time you are feeling down about your life after lurking on Facebook, go to Google and start typing stuff into the search box. Google’s autocomplete will tell you the searches other people are making. Type in ‘I always…’ and you may see the suggestion, based on other people’s searches, ‘I always feel tired’ or ‘I always have diarrhea.’ This can offer a stark contrast to social media, where everyone ‘always’ seems to be on…vacation.” This is more than schadenfreude; this is understanding others as whole beings, with struggles and successes, and realizing that we are all more alike than we are different. The most important advice Stephens-Davidowitz offers, in my opinion, is this: “Don’t compare your Google searches to other people’s Facebook posts.” Don’t judge yourself by comparing your struggles to other people’s successes. It’s not an honest view of others and it’s an unfair view of yourself.
Judaism has the famed story of Rabbi Zusya, who was weeping before his students at the end of his life. I’m sure many of you have heard it. In consoling him, Rabbi Zusya’s students told him how wonderful he was and asked if he was afraid that God would ask him why he wasn’t more like Moses. Rabbi Zusya said that he wasn’t afraid of being asked why he wasn’t more like Moses, but rather why he wasn’t more like Zusya. What he means is that the only yardstick by which God measures us is our own. The only life against which God determines whether or not we’ll be inscribed in the Book of Life is our own life. God doesn’t compare our lives to others; neither should we. We are not supposed to be like anyone else; we are called to be our best, our most authentic selves, and inspire others with the wholeness of our lives. May you be your whole self and may you be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life. Shanah tovah.
 Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. Don’t Let Facebook Make You Miserable, The New York Times. May 6, 2017.
 Jessica Abramson. Facebook posts, December 27, 2016.
 Rachel Ackerman. Boiled Seeds. Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776, September 14, 2015.