When I was a student – so long ago that we could smoke in pubs, submit handwritten essays, and make idiots of ourselves without it being recorded for all eternity on indestructible servers – I was an occasional attendee at the termly Catholic Society ceilidh.
What happy occasions those were! A huge room full of flushed, cheerful young people, enjoying themselves in a wholesome and convivial atmosphere, quite unlike the nightclubs where other evenings were spent…
I don’t want to focus on the general wholesomeness of the ceilidh versus the debauchery and crude sexual display of the nightclub. The reason I bring up the ceilidhs is that they were one of the first things that occurred to me when I tried to recollect occasions when I had witnessed unself-conscious enjoyment, i.e. enjoyment which was not performed, which was not strained or exaggerated for effect or to convey a particular impression, but was a straightforward and unfeigned reaction to the joy of semi-formal communal dancing.
Our lives are not meant to be conducted as a posture or a performance. – Niall Gooch
This was on my mind because I have been trying to understand why I am uneasy about the choreographed videos by medical professionals that have been on social media during the coronavirus outbreak. In previous times, I had similar reservations about the Ice Bucket Challenge that dominated Facebook a few years back, and in a different context the “jumping vicars” shots which seemed for a while to be de rigueur for newly-ordained Anglican clergy.
I have not ruled out the possibility that I am just a cantankerous reactionary. But I don’t think it is that which lies at the root of my disquiet. Rather, I am uneasy about people treating their lives as a performance, of there being a social expectation – a social pressure – to show your feelings, to Join In The Fun.
I often reflect on that awful, cruel Daily Express headline addressed directly to the Queen in that strange week following the death of Princess Diana: SHOW US YOU CARE. You saw the same bullying sentimentalism given full rein when Madeleine McCann went missing. Her parents Kate and Gerry were widely pilloried in some corners of the press for their failure to emote for the cameras. The idea that they simply saw some value in stoicism and did not want to parade their grief and frustrations and turmoil for the world’s media seemed to be quite alien to many journalists and their readers.
I am uneasy about people treating their lives as a performance, of there being a social expectation – a social pressure – to show your feelings, to Join In The Fun.
In the era of COVID-19, there have already been cases where people who do not join in with the Clap For Carers are shamed, or denounced, for their decision not to show enthusiasm in the approved fashion.
Our lives are not meant to be conducted as a posture or a performance. One of the great artistic meditations on the perils of understanding life that way is Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear foolishly equates eloquence with depth and sincerity of feeling, and so disinherits his loyal and loving but reticent daughter Cordelia in favour of her obsequious but vindictive and selfish sisters Goneril and Regan. He pays a heavy price for this mistake, as do many other characters.
In the New Testament, Jesus returns frequently to the theme that outward show is nothing compared to a pure heart and a genuinely virtuous life. The first part of Matthew chapter 6 is the obvious example: “Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention”. This seems to me a particular danger in the era of social media, when it is more possible than ever before for all of us to construct a carefully curated public persona, that may or may not bear any resemblance to our real selves. The great challenge is to retain a realistic self-image, and to remember that our moral obligations to those around us are not discharged by mere displays of zeal and virtue.
Niall Gooch is a writer.
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