SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - Existing for Dummies
Your world is not real...and that's okay!
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
While some of us sweat at the sight of crowds and others happily pay money to stand in them for hours, all of us are social beings. The level of sociality per individual varies, but not in the way you might think. Whether you’re a hermit or a socialite, the number of people you socialize with is almost identical.
Those non-human primates still hanging out in the forests are social animals too. Robin Dunbar noticed the consistent size of different primate groups and put forth a theory — is group size related to brain size? He applied the correlation between primate brains and primate groups to humans and came up with what’s now called Dunbar’s number, an average limit to the number of relationships a single human can maintain.
Kim Kardashian might have 189 million followers, but she still has the same number of real relationships you do — 150.
The way we define “relationship” is more of an art than a science. Do you have a relationship with the barista you see when ordering your latte? Not quite. What if you order your latte from that same barista every Monday?
What about our “friends?” Is the person you once spoke to weekly but now speak to less than every 3 months still a friend? What about the person you know only as a username and who exists nowhere beyond your inbox but does speak to you weekly?
Relationships have always eluded clear definition, but in the social media age of friends and “friends,” our connections are even more confusing.
Relationships are investments in people; we give time and emotional space to people depending on where they stand in our hierarchy of relationships. Dunbar theorized this investment is constrained by our brain; we can only think about so many people just as we can only think about so many numbers at once. That hierarchy has different levels; about 1,500 people you can recognize, 500 distant acquaintances, 150 true relationships, and so on until you reach the smallest sub-group of 5 — close friends and family.
This number holds consistent across different groups, from hunter-gatherer societies to military units. Even on social media, where we easily accrue more than 150 “friends,” people differentiate their Facebook friends from their true friends, a number usually even lower than Dunbar’s number.
Facebook chose the word “friends,” but a more accurate term might have been “bookmarks.” What social media really gives us isn’t more relationships, but an ability to keep track of more people. Yet, there’s a cost to all that tracking in a medium designed for socializing.
As we scroll through our timeline of human bookmarks, we’re still given a social experience, albeit one we can’t physically keep up with.
Unlike the news that overwhelms us with information, on social media, we’re burdened with both information and demands for a reaction.
Social media defies Dunbar’s number by letting us keep track of more people than we normally could, yet it insists we react to these relationships as we normally would. The option to post, comment, like, and message all become requests we either accept or reject, but constantly rejecting social gestures is not how we maintain relationships.
Social media is a social circus, taking the time that normally went to our friends and investing that into our “friends.”
Sharing memes and commenting on posts from friends and family we can’t see in person is a great use of social media. Sharing memes and commenting on posts from friends and family we don’t see in person because we’re lulled into complacency about our relationships through constant digital contact is one of its worst uses.
The closeness that makes our relationships meaningful isn’t found on social media; it’s not interaction, but synchronicity that creates connection.
Commenting on your friend’s post about a movie she saw is maintenance; seeing a movie together is connection. Whether it’s brain size, time, or environment, there are constraints on how much investing we can do in our relationships. Social media coaxes us into investing in the maintenance of relationships, many of which are on the lowest rung of our social hierarchy.
You might still cling to the skill of real-time socializing, but what about the generations raised in a world where friends and “friends” blend seamlessly? We are on a path rapidly leading us away from the only form of socializing that’s existed throughout our history.
We go online and our “friends” show us what they did yesterday and we react today. We go online and strangers condemn us for not knowing something they learned yesterday. We go online and voyeuristically watch verbal fights between half-people, half-avatars.
The lowest quality socializing is better than nothing, but an internet connection is no replacement for emotional connection.
Perhaps the vitriol of the online world is the result of stretching Dunbar’s number far beyond its limit. Despite its name, social media is not social in the way our brain is designed for. Everyone outside our social limit is a digital shadow, a disposable interaction — that’s why the way we treat people online is rarely the way we’d treat them in person.
Validation is one of those psych terms that escaped the lab and now runs amok in the city. Social media is awash with demands for validation and accusations of validation denied. This word has gotten massive mileage acting in the place of a more humdrum word we’re less inclined to use about ourselves — acceptance.
Rip the mask off of validation and you’ll find it’s nothing but a flavor of acceptance. We seek validation from others all the time — when we share something that bothered us with our friends and expect a certain response; when we explain why something matters to us expecting someone to recognize its importance; when we’re intolerant of people disagreeing with us and holding different beliefs.
The unwillingness to tolerate people who won’t acquiesce to your views is a demand for validation.
Seeking validation isn’t inherently harmful — it’s where you seek it and when that causes harm. Our friends, family, and partner provide validation for us because they care; they’re willing to occasionally put their own needs for validation aside to fulfill ours. Yet, expecting the rest of the world to treat us like kin is the kind of expectation that’s destined to end in pain.
Unlike your average desire for acceptance, validation is the desire for acceptance of a specific part of you — your reality. This world is a chaotic, unstable, confusing place. Despite knowing 0.0001% of what there is to know in this vast and infinitely unknowable world, we try our best to live like we know things. We have to live like we know things — to do anything else is to live in a world so unpredictable we could never delude ourselves into working a job or committing to anything for more than a day.
In a world that could end tomorrow, the future is a fantasy.
When something contradicts the reality we’re using to stave off that sense of terrifying unknowingness, panic and rage are predictable responses. We’ve all seen the meltdowns that stem from a reality fractured — protesters screaming hysterically at opponents, emotional disintegration over disagreements with a partner, and violent responses to rejection of all kinds.
We want to be understood, we want other people to confirm that we see and feel reality. When our feelings and beliefs are rejected, it’s a rejection of our truth. Nothing is more terrifying than someone reminding us of the crushing uncertainty of our lives.
We can’t know all reality, we can only inch closer to it action by action. Rather than building a home out of as flimsy a material as facts and opinions that are destined to change as the world does, our defense against a chaotic world must be more stable. Rather than delude ourselves into believing we’ve miraculously discovered the entirety of reality, we can accept that we are only ever moving closer or farther.
We are destined to bump into each other in our blind, clumsy efforts to grasp at reality.
Instead of demanding we give up our realities for each other, we can validate our own reality and free each other from ourselves. This is the art of self-validation, the art of taking responsibility for your own journey to and from reality. Self-validation is used in dialectical behavior therapy; it’s a method for quelling the panic of accidentally scratching the surface of our fragile grasp on reality. Rather than fighting to cling to the reality we thought we had, self-validation is a graceful acceptance of our ever-shifting sense of what is real.
Self-validation removes the “should,” the “wrong,” and all other judgments that make the pain of a fractured reality sting even more bitterly.
Self-validation is the process by which we help ourselves find stability in a world that can shift beneath us as quickly as we can refresh our newsfeed. Essentially a guided journal entry, the page above is the process that grounds us when the world will not.
The next time you feel that sense of panic or rage at someone whose reality dares to differ from yours, don’t demand they give up their reality for yours. Let other people flail and spin on their own journey to and from the truth. Validate your own reality and you won’t be subjected to the fragility of depending on millions of different people to miraculously see the same world as you.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.