Jonathan Franzen's commencement address at Kenyon College--a school I applied to, but decided not to attend because the walkways had "too much gravel"--marks our Facebook age.
Franzen touches a bit heavily on the shallowness of social media...a point he acknowledges with the sentence, "Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds." You know the drill: those are shallow connections online, it's too easy just to "friend" someone, whatever happened to flesh and blood friends anyway?
That's true as far as it goes, which isn't very far.
I've found Facebook to be a great social tool, as it reveals sides of people you would never know about otherwise. A link, a photo, or an event creation are all avenues to further understanding someone with whom you might have a limited relationship. People still need to connect, and face to face is still the best means overall...but now we have online capabilities that make those connections even easier. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.
But Franzen is right about one thing--it's too easy to "like" things on Facebook. Back in the old days you had to comment on something to register an interest, now you can just click "like" and not say a word. I've been guilty of this behavior many times, but nonetheless a little part of me cringes as I do so.
Franzen uses this background about Facebook--wonderfully of the zeitgeist, even if I don't agree with his analysis--to set up a crucial distinction between "liking" and "loving." At this point in his address we move away from today's technology and towards universal themes. In short, there is no way to like every aspect of any other person but it is possible to love them completely.
This is one of those observations that feels obvious but is actually profound. Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that a collection of likes (another person's hair, clothes, smile) will sum up to love. But love is so much deeper; a recognition that another person's flaws (and our own) will sometimes feel oppressive, but that we have to push through anyway and make the effort of building a life together. Franzen quotes Alice Sebold about "getting down in the pit and loving somebody." That pit is ourselves, which we must confront as we make mistake after mistake with those we love.
So why bother? Franzen describes his own deep love of birds, which "became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I'd never even known existed." There's the payoff. If you're willing to take the journey deep into the pit you have the opportunity to transcend yourself and be a better person than you would have been otherwise.
Looking back, many quirks of Helen's did grate on me (as mine did on her). But I loved her completely and still can't imagine my life if I'd never met her. It was young love, but real love, and the marriage made me a better person.
And this time around I like pretty much everything about Pi Wen and love her too. Awesome.