My Name Is Stephanie, And I’m Addicted To Your Facebook Comments

***Please note that names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality and avoid googleability.

All I really want is to be understood. OK, that’s a lie. I want a billion dollars; a super-fast metabolism to complement my love of food; immortality and perfect health for me and all those I love and even like; a tall, graceful body; an exquisite appearance; the ability to understand quantum physics and to capture whatever truth might lie behind the God concept in words of breathtaking power… and an innate sense of calm. And so much more that eludes me in this bizarre and uncontrollable life.

Truth is, I’m a greedy little soul by most people’s standards. Not my own, though: I believe with perfect faith that I deserve all of these things and more. I need you to understand that I think we should all have these gifts. Please, please don’t misinterpret my words. I am not arrogant. I simply want, want, want… in order to fulfill an underlying rightness that should exist for us all but hasn’t managed to emerge.

Let’s say you did misunderstand and got up on your high and mighty horse about it, implying that my desires stem from some kind of superiority complex or immaturity or some other unflattering source. If this happened on social media, we might find ourselves in a complex and harrowing battle. As long as you kept commenting, I would too. I would want to explain. Each pronouncement by you would feel like a giant sore crying for the ointment of my clarification.

I would fight. Not to the death — nothing warrants death as far as I’m concerned — but certainly to the point of fatigue, anger, sleeplessness, and even, in the worst cases, despair.

I’ve written about my love for Facebook: the connections I make with people around the world who would never fall into my “real life” orbit. This can become deep and complex, with discussions rivaling the best late-night parties among close “real life” friends. It reaches the point where the line between “real life” and “virtual life” starts to dim. If I’m sitting in my very real living room, typing responses with my real though clumsy fingers, I’m living, not dreaming. And so is at least one soul somewhere else in the world who is also feeling, thinking, and reacting with all the strength of actual life.

But of course there are differences, and some of them create an odd freedom in the virtual world. If you’re, say, having lunch with someone at a restaurant, your meeting will end at a very clear time. One of you has to go back to work, the check appears… it’s over. Bodies meeting in the world rub up against physical constraints. The café is only open so late; your friend’s children can only go so long without her physical help at home.

Discussion in the virtual world can last… forever. You can think it’s over, ignore your equipment and focus on the “real world,” come back, and boom: a new comment has appeared, maybe even a whole new discussion. Usually that’s fabulous. It almost feels like we’ve achieved a quasi-spiritual world, where physical constraints are no barrier to ongoing sharing with other souls.

But, once in a while, it all begins to spiral away from fabulousness and into a weird kind of addiction. The energy turns sour, and I feel misunderstood.

Now, some misunderstandings are a fantastic opportunity. Two minds diverge, but they can begin to respect each other, even if they don’t change their basic beliefs. Those are moments of true beauty. And I guess my problem is: I want them to come whenever I disagree with someone. I push it, every which way, and won’t stop until everyone else stops.

And let’s just say I’m not the only weird addict making my way through our world. The sun has set, the moon has glowed, and the sun has reappeared, with me furiously typing away at my computer, desperately trying to coax a bunch of characters somewhere in the universe to understand my take on an issue that fires me up. The failure was palpable after the first ten minutes, but I couldn’t give up.

My name is Stephanie and I am addicted to your comments, even if they’re sure to lead down a nasty path.

Sociopaths, gifted children, marriage vs. singlehood, asexuality, spirituality… many potentially wonderful topics have left me drained, isolated, angry… and jumping right back in for more. Education is a particular area of passion for me, and I love to see what various people think about key issues. I mean, usually I do. Sometimes I don’t. But that doesn’t stop me from bursting ahead and continuing a conversation that’s going nowhere.

Fairly recently, I jumped into a Facebook thread about gifted children, arguing that it’s hard to define giftedness in an accurate way — and that I would rather see all kids learn at their own pace in each academic area. Deciding who is “gifted” is not the key; the important thing is to challenge, delight, prepare, and embrace every student. If you let each child study each academic area at the level best suited to current intellectual development, the “gifted” kids will soar ahead and shine, and the rest of us losers just might find our own talents.

“I wasn’t calling you a loser,” Gwen, a 40ish mother of three, consoled me.

“I know you weren’t. It was a joke.”

“Some joke. You were dripping with sarcasm.”

I tried to change the subject a bit, but then Cynthia, a redhead whose eight-year-old son was having a terrible time finding challenge at school, broke in: “How do you know you’re not gifted?”

“I don’t. That’s just it. Sometimes in school, I fit the definition, and sometimes I didn’t. I was a weird case. It all depended on the test. I’m strong in some areas and very weak in others. So the whole thing always felt strange to me. Was I not gifted in 6th grade but all of a sudden gifted in 7th? Did a holy being jump down from the sky and make me one of the anointed in 7th grade? I’m just asking you to challenge your assumptions. One test or even a group of tests can’t always determine who is gifted and who isn’t. People are so complex. The kid who has trouble reading and understanding numbers might be an amazing artist. In my ideal school, he’d tackle academic stuff slowly and pursue his artistic strength. No need to tell him he’s not gifted.”

But, apparently, there are telltale signs of giftedness. Gifted kids are “wired differently” from other kids. They tend to be very excitable and sensitive to sensory input like sights and sounds. I’d heard this before — a researcher named Kazimierz Dabrowski hypothesized that “overexcitability” is key to the gifted personality.

I told them I was very open to this as a tendency and actually found it extremely interesting: “All I’m saying is that everyone is unique, and many of these traits are on a continuum. Some who are super-bright by anyone’s standards are actually quite calm. Some may be kind of excitable. Some may be off-the-charts excitable. And some who are not particularly intelligent in the standard academic way are very excitable. Just like giftedness as a whole. Some are amazingly talented in all kinds of ways. Some might have a few talents combined with a few weaknesses. Someone else might be weak in every possible academic area but have an incredible gift for making people laugh. I’m not saying there aren’t certain qualities that tend to cluster together — say, extraordinary academic intelligence and an excitable temperament. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to get math prodigies together so they can meet others who share that trait and learn together. I just think it’s misguided to make blanket assumptions based on tests, and to use labels to guide someone’s life. Everyone could benefit from individualized instruction geared to their strengths and weaknesses.”

I’m not sure why, but things deteriorated from there. I was a “self-centered bitch” who wanted to dismantle gifted programs because I wasn’t chosen for one as a child. (Never mind that I never said gifted programs should be dismantled, just that, ideally, our whole educational system would change so that everyone could study at an individual pace, including the most advanced learners, who would benefit profoundly from this approach.) There was “clearly something wrong” with me. I should have ended things right here, moved on to something else. It was a warm, breezy night: I could have slipped outside and gotten myself a nice pot of tea in a nearby café.

But I didn’t. Because there were comments on that thread that misrepresented me. I didn’t want to be misunderstood, even by a couple of Midwestern ladies whose physical paths were exceedingly unlikely to cross with my own. Their comments sat there, hanging. I had to respond.

So I did. Again and again. “I’m just saying you should think in a more nuanced way,” I wrote. “It’s not a question of gifted or not gifted. It’s a spectrum.”

“You just refuse to hear us,” Gwen replied. Well, I couldn’t let that hang, could I? Hearing people is my religion: I love to hear what people think. It lasted all night, me and these two ladies, who started tagging each other in seemingly private notes:

“Cynthia McGrath, who exactly is this Stephanie person?”

“I don’t know, Gwen Masterson Sharpe, but she sure seems like an unhappy person.”

They were like the mean girls at the sleepaway camp I went to after 6th grade, the ones who formed these weird alliances and whose constant cutting comments occasionally reached true brilliance. I was pretty unhappy right then: anxious, frustrated, enraged that this was where I found myself, arguing with no end in sight and no possible reward that could justify this level of time commitment. It was 6 in the morning! This had started at 7 p.m.! Who was I, and how had I arrived at this miserable place?

I tried to end things, saying I was glad I had met Cynthia and Gwen and we would just have to agree to disagree on certain issues. Leaving on a note of extreme animosity frightened me somehow. A bad energy seemed to float above our conversation. I had to quell it: “I sincerely hope you both have great days, and I wish your kids luck with all their educational pursuits.”

Gwen wrote: “They don’t have much hope with people like you expressing your ideas.” Before I could blink, Cynthia had “liked” the comment.

And it dawned on me: like so much else, this was hopeless, a situation that had spiraled way beyond my control. I couldn’t contain it any more than I could contain pollution in New Jersey or the growing rate of obesity in Micronesia. I ignored the comment, didn’t respond. I didn’t want to be 70 years old, still arguing with Gwen and Cynthia. At a certain point, it had to end. It was just a shame that hadn’t happened 10 hours earlier.

I logged out of Facebook and headed to bed. Luckily, I didn’t teach until the afternoon, so I could sleep a bit. I barely thought about Cynthia and Gwen after I woke up. I was moving forward, ever so slowly.

Sometimes, it’s hard to know the difference between fruitful contention and a useless, grinding time suck. I’ve spent hours embroiled in Facebook arguments and felt, ultimately, that everyone learned, including me. It’s a question of tone and social dynamics among everybody in the discussion.

I want everyone to cultivate openness towards everyone else — for people to enjoy hearing alternate points of view. In an odd way, that desire may be every bit as greedy as pining after a billion dollars, the fastest metabolism in the world, and immortality. All of it seemingly conflicts with the basic laws of nature and life. I won’t stop hoping; hope is the one thing that pushes me forward. But hope is fruitless when it inspires idiocy. If you and I disagree, I will try to create a situation where we can learn from each other. If I fail, I will try again, because I’m stubborn like that. If I still fail, I will move on. I will, I will. Even if it’s on Facebook, and your comment hangs there, giving you the last word. She who gets the last word does not necessarily win anything other than a sleepless night.