I Am a Meme Now — And So Are You
Maybe wisdom is accepting that you don’t get to decide who you are
Apparently I am a meme now. This was brought to my attention a couple of weeks ago, when a friend forwarded me an internet post that superimposed a line from one of my essays over a cat’s face. It was a two-panel image, setup and punch line: In the first panel we see the words “the rewards of being loved” (cat appears to croak with feeble hope); in the second, “the mortifying ordeal of being known” (cat droops despondently). The same friend later forwarded me a number of variations on this theme using other meme templates: My words were put into the mouths of characters from Parks and Recreation and Real Housewives, purple universe-decimating Marvel villain Thanos, and other pop-cultural sources I didn’t recognize. For the record, the original phrase, taken from the last line of an essay, called “Oof” (published in the New York Times under the title “I Know What You Think of Me”) was: “… if we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” The internet’s consensus seems to be a collective shudder of dread in the face of this bargain: they are the unhappy cat, accepting that he is doomed to solitude.
I’d intended this line to express a fairly common apprehension about the risks of intimacy, but it seems to speak specifically to a greater-than-normal horror of human interaction peculiar to the internet generations. Reading memes as a sociological text is probably only one step above haruspicy or poststructuralism, but it seems fair to say that the widespread popularity of this sentiment does not augur well for the emotional health of the young, circa 2019. They react to the prospect of intimate relationships in pretty much the same way they do to videos of people base-jumping off TV towers or letting colossal Australian spiders crawl across their faces. As one commenter put it (using the words of another meme): “That’s gonna be a no from me, dawg.”
You can’t write — or live — if you imagine the whole world watching over your shoulder, waiting for you to screw up, ready to mock or vilify you.