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Seeing Reality Is Better than ‘Being Seen’

Earlier this summer, we took our kids to the beautiful, rocky bluffs and tide pools of Laguna Beach—one of our favorite local beach spots. While we helped our kids look for crabs, sea anemones, and other critters, I noticed something about the majority of people around us. Almost everyone was doing a photo shoot with either a professional photographer or an “Instagram boyfriend”: Maternity and engagement shoots. High school graduation shoots. First baby shoots. Casual poses (with outfit changes) on sand, surf, and rock, all bathed in that golden-hour glow. Perhaps with an Instagram caption already in mind.

I’m not knocking the practice of memorializing life’s milestones in beautiful settings. Nor am I saying it’s bad to desire to publicly share your appreciation for some segment of God’s beautiful world. I often do both. At the Laguna Beach tide pools, I took out my phone as well, snapping photos and posting a few.

Still, the scene struck me as sad. Here we were, in a truly breathtaking place, and most of us spent less time observing the beauty around us than posing for photographs within it, or pulling out our phones to visually document it. The promise of “being seen” in this place prevailed over the desire to be present there.

The promise of ‘being seen’ in this place prevailed over the desire to be present there.

But when we’re not present in life, our ability to see atrophies. The full force of reality dulls and the brightness of beauty dims, demoted as they are to background players in the central drama of our own small, performative lives. When seeing reality tangibly becomes less compelling to us than being seen virtually, we lose perspective and, ultimately, purpose.

“Being seen” is a nice experience but supremely unsatisfying as a primary goal in life. We aren’t the most interesting, beautiful, or inspiring part of this world. More satisfying than being seen is seeing rightly: encountering the goodness, truth, and beauty of God’s world and knowing him more as a result.

Faux Transcendence of ‘Being Seen’

Internet connectivity and social media have accelerated the temptation toward “being seen.” On YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and the rest, options are limitless for how we can draw attention to ourselves: political ranting, product reviewing, posing, opining, dancing, and lip-synching.

But our contemporary cultural obsession with being seen wasn’t birthed in the social media age. Its current technological expression is an outgrowth of a spiritual transformation with a centuries-long genealogy, one in which man gradually replaced God as the measure of all things and the “self” asserting its godlike qualities gradually replaced communal worship of a transcendent God. For more on this, I recommend Tara Isabella Burton’s Self-Made or Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

However we got here, the reality is that this “inward turn,” this ascendant individualism, this “look at me!” world has provided a deeply unsatisfying faux transcendence. Mounting evidence suggests the more we orient life around being seen, the more miserable we are (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation or Jean Twenge’s iGen).

Among other things, the “look at me” world of posturing, performance, and promotion isolates us from one another and exacerbates loneliness. “Being connected is not the same thing as being united,” Byung-Chul Han observes in The Crisis of Narration. He continues,

“Stories” on social media, which are in fact mere self-promotion, separate people from each other. Unlike narratives, they produce neither closeness nor empathy. . . . The stories do not narrate; they advertise. Vying for attention does not create community.

But relational poverty is just one of the poverties we experience in a “being seen” world. There are others:

We’re spiritually impoverished: the self is a always a disappointing object of worship.
We’re epistemologically impoverished: man isn’t a reliable “measure of all things”—not even most things.
We’re aesthetically impoverished: the self, however lovely, is but one meager droplet in the ocean of beauty that exists in the universe.

So while the dopamine spikes that stem from being seen (likes, views, validation, affirmation, representation, and so on) offer temporary pings of pleasure that briefly fill our spiritual vacuum, they leave us empty in the long term.

See Beyond the Self

Christianity calls us to look beyond the self and focus our gaze instead on the source of true happiness and purpose: Christ and his kingdom. In doing this, we see reality as it is, not as what partisan narratives or personal agendas want it to be. This is the only type of seeing that truly satisfies, but we’re losing our capacity to see in this way.

Mounting evidence suggests the more we orient life around being seen, the more miserable we are.

“Man’s ability to see is in decline,” observed German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper in 1990. And by seeing, he meant “the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.” Our degraded capacity to see is caused, Pieper argued, by the fact that “there is too much to see.” Visual noise impairs our vision, but so does an excessive amount of mirrors. We’re not only blinded by a too-expansive field of vision; we’re blinded by the tunnel vision of looking too intently at ourselves. Overstimulation and narcissism both keep us from seeing rightly.

How can we regain true, life-giving sight? How can we develop a stronger hunger to see the beauty of God’s creation more than to have others see us seeing the beauty? How can we rediscover a curious, enchanted, awestruck, and worshipful way of looking at the world—a beholding of God’s glory that not only arrests us but transforms us (2 Cor. 3:18)?

It starts by creating space in the glut to actually look, and listen, carefully. Stop scrolling, stop posting, and be still long enough to truly take in reality. This requires seeking out unmediated space and silence, which is the last thing Silicon Valley wants us to prioritize. Resist the urge to grab your phone at every moment to mediate your experience of life. Just experience life. Instead of posting a commentary about something you heard, saw, or encountered. Just think about what you heard, saw, or encountered. Silence, more often than frantic expression, is the pathway to illumination. Gilles Deleuze says it well:

It’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.

We need to discover the gift of silence (rather than constant expression) and the gift of hiddenness and obscurity (rather than publicizing all aspects of life). When we start to live in unseen ways, without constant effort to act, perform, and compete for eyeballs and attention, our appetite to see rather than be seen naturally grows. Further, our intimacy with Christ tends to grow as our need to be seen by others diminishes (see John Starke’s The Secret Place of Thunder).

Resist Social Media Technopoly

Am I arguing we should never share vacation photos or pose for selfies in beautiful locations? No. I’m simply suggesting a more fulfilling and God-honoring way to live is to prioritize seeing above being seen, knowing the holy God above being known by the fickle masses.

Prioritize knowing the holy God above being known by the fickle masses.

Practically—and I’m preaching to myself here—this looks like resisting most urges to post instant stories about every beautiful nature scene I encounter; it means refraining from sounding off on social media every time a hot-take opinion enters my head. It means going more places, reading more books, and having more “off the record” conversations: unpublished, unperformed, simply experienced in the sacred community of those with me in person or those (e.g., close family who live far away) with whom I decide to share the experience though a texted photo, FaceTime, or—dare I say it—snail mail.

As Christians, we should model a resistance to a social media technopoly that directly benefits from our addiction to being seen by “audiences” of scrolling masses. Instead, we should model reverence before God that looks like authentic attention and eager interest in his world, which reveals his glory (Ps. 19:1). We should be the people so engrossed in the beauty of a sunset, a waterfall, or a coastal tide pool that we forget to take a picture of it, or at least take a picture as a way to remember the experience of seeing this beauty in a real time and place.

This will not only point our neighbors to a better way to live but will increase our own wisdom and worship as creatures captivated by the Creator’s glory.

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