In our Monday worship gatherings this quarter, we are exploring the Ten Commandments, and this last week, we dealt with the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” In today’s world, rife with OMGs, I have to wonder if this commandment really matters anymore. Is it on a par with killing or lying or stealing? Perhaps the value of this commandment is that in refraining from saying God’s name in exclamation or provocation, or out of habit as filler, we are led into more conscious living.
All of the world’s major religions value living consciously and have practices to encourage this intentional kind of presence as we go through our days. Muslims have the adhan, the call to prayer, a tangible reminder for many in Muslim majority countries to turn their attention back toward God; Buddhists meditate with the goal of being awake, a moment by moment awareness of ultimate presence; Christians are enjoined to listen for God ceaselessly throughout our days so that we might do God’s will. Living consciously reminds us what is important, keeps us from being distracted by that which really doesn’t matter. It grounds us and grants us perspective.
But with the ubiquity of facebook status updates compelling us to report on the momentous and mundane alike, Youtube surprising even the unremarkable with instant celebrity, and cellphone cameras potentially capturing any given instant, I wonder if our struggle is not so much living consciously but not living self-consciously. Of course, they are linked, but it seems to me that there is more danger today in living self-consciously, this kind of hyper-awareness wherein we feel exposed, watched, and constantly seen than in failing to be conscious, and cognizant of ourselves and our surroundings.
The recent death of Tyler Clementi is a tragic reminder of this tension between being the conscious and self-conscious and the need we all have for private and public space. As anyone dealing with coming out knows, the process demands consciousness; it is too easy to sublimate and ignore a dawning awareness about one’s sexuality in order to gain societal approval, to avoid pain, to fit in to the grand heterosexual narrative that plays out for us in big and little ways every day. But as every queer person also knows, eventually, coming out must be faced. My own coming out, though wonderful in many ways, was also messy and complicated and very personal. It’s a process that requires the safety of privacy because it is just that: a process, wherein no one moment defines us nor should confine us.
Whether it’s coming out or something else, the reality is that ALL of us live life in process. None of us want to be represented by a single statement we’ve made or linked forever to a single moment, even if it was a glorious one. The problem with self-consciousness is that it turns us into objects, people who things happen to, rather than subjects. As subjects, we are the “I” in the sentence, defining for ourselves who we are and how we will live.
For good or ill, the technology that engages us with the many levels of representationalism is here to stay, and so we must face the question of how to retain our role as the writer of our own story, even if those stories are always, to quote Audre Lorde, our “biomythologies.” In our quest to resist the tyranny of self-conscious living, perhaps we would do well to remember the maxim about people who live in glass houses: that we shouldn’t throw stones. The camera we critically train on others can just as easily be turned on ourselves, a lesson Tyler Clementi’s roommate is learning the hard way. And just as Tyler cannot and should not be defined by one moment, neither should his roommate’s moral lapse be eternally linked with his character. The value of living consciously is that each moment in our lives gets to exist in itself, and in the freedom of this non-attachment, we are led to forgiveness, repentance and compassion.