Do you even remember a time when most people didn’t have a camera at the ready in their pockets? It took over so fast. Not so long ago, I was mentally saving up for a camcorder. Now, I can’t remember the last time I saw one, and that includes weddings and graduation ceremonies. Over a trillion photos were taken in 2015. How many of those were artfully posed and cropped? What parts of life are we hiding from posterity? What is it about the moment we’re capturing that we don’t want our friends to see?
I confess, I do it myself. When I’m taking photos or making illustrations, I usually spend more time fussing over the backdrop than I do taking the shot. It’s an intrinsic part of the composition. I don’t want a piece of lint detracting from my close-up photo. It’s confusing because it’s too hard to tell whether it was intentional; whether it’s telling part of the story or it just crept in there. I want the focus on my subject, not some random junk in the background. What is that, exactly? A window frame? Part of a chair? I usually like how my shots turn out. That’s a major advantage of being able to take thousands of pictures without paying to develop them all (only to find out that the lens cap was on or my finger was blocking the lens). The practice of staging my shots does sometimes tell a false story.
It doesn’t always go the way you’d think, though! Whenever I need a picture of clutter for an illustration, I have to wrack my brain. I have fished stacks of newspaper out of the recycling. I have pulled out junk mail and strewn it about. Naturally, I have dozens of pictures documenting my home visits, but those are for my personal reference. I can’t very well share photos of my clients’ homes. (It’s a hazard, anyway, because my people have a tendency to feel better about their own junk after they’ve seen someone else’s). If I leave a laundry basket half full because I want to go to the movie theater in the middle of the day, I’m not very well going to take a picture of it and post it on the Internet. I’m just… not going to document it.
This is what we have to watch out for: This tendency we have to want certain things to remain off the record.
The day I found out my ex-husband had spent our house savings behind my back, I was at work. I simply, suddenly, knew. I called him and asked how much we had in our shared account. He sputtered and blustered and tried to change the subject. When we got home, I made him show me the bank statements. He said he had been planning to pay it off on payday. (Ha). In his mind, I never needed to know because he was going to “fix it.” He thought he could somehow repay what amounted to months of our shared income without my noticing, and that the betrayal wouldn’t count. Why should the reality of those cold, hard numerals reflect so badly on his pure intentions?
I keep a calendar in my phone. It records all my appointments over the last four years or so. What it doesn’t record are all the times I showed up late. I have this glossy, color-coded, inaccurate historical document that makes me look organized and punctual. I’ll be sure to archive it for my biographer.
My dog has this Oscar-worthy performance in which he shows one of us that he hasn’t been fed, that he is in fact in serious danger of starving to death. It’s tragic. At least once a month, one of us falls for it. He empties his dish so quickly that there’s no way to tell he’s about to get two dinners. It’s not like he keeps a food log.
Most people don’t keep a food log. Any time I have suggested it, people are like, UM, NO. It feels like too much work. (It isn’t, especially if you basically eat the same two weeks’ worth of food over and over again). I do it to keep myself honest and to keep track of my micronutrient consumption. My honey doesn’t see it that way. He gives himself the loophole of skipping certain days that are “unusual” for some reason. What most people will do, when they attempt to start bringing some focus and awareness to their eating habits, is to get discouraged by “messing up” one day and then to eat more than usual the rest of that day. “I’ll start over tomorrow.” We so, so want today not to count. We want this moment not to count. We apparently want this one real life that we live to NOT COUNT. Give me a do-over! I promise I won’t screw up this time!
I have a failed coaching relationship. I was asked to help someone lose a significant amount of weight over a short period of time. She asked if I thought she could do it, and I crunched the numbers and said yes, if she was very focused. She told me that she poses in family photos by hiding behind her kids so that nobody can tell how much weight she’s gained. She didn’t make her weight goal by the deadline she had chosen, and that was the last I heard from her. I should have known. Her motivation was not to overcome her health issues, to be stronger, or to prove something to herself about her inner fortitude. Her motivation was to look better in photos, ASAP. She didn’t want to confront the demons (kidney failure was on the list) or figure out what to do about her sugar addiction. She wanted a fantasy on demand. I’ve learned more about radical candor since then. What we want is perfection on a controlled schedule. What we can have is a series of reality checks and a syllabus full of difficult assignments. We want the diploma when we should be earning the education; we want the wedding ceremony when we should be building the marriage.
Nobody is judging us. REALITY is judging us. We keep getting results from our behaviors, and we keep wanting those results to be anomalous. We can’t bear to think that we’re doing so many things to ourselves. We don’t think the portrait of Future Self hanging in the Future Museum could possibly be us. I’m not getting old, not me! I’m obviously much too clever for that. I would never unintentionally set myself up with unintended consequences! The two most commonly procrastinated activities are planning for retirement and dealing with health problems. The most common deathbed regret is never fulfilling our dreams. We keep thinking we have more time, more time, more time.
We keep wanting the perfect photograph. We have these happy moments we can display. We never take pictures of ourselves when we’re fighting. We don’t record when we’re being unfair or inconsiderate. Probably not too many people photograph themselves stealing someone’s lunch from the fridge at work or sticking chewed gum under a café table. We want the record to show that we are cute and fun, that everything really is okay. How much better would it be if we could face reality, confront it without a filter, and react accordingly?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.