This is a tide of the academic year when we are conscious of being watchers and watched at the same time. It can be hard to discern which we are at any given moment. We are watchers in the sense that we’re trying to heed assignment protocols and keep an eye on deadlines and stay attentive in classes whose welcome we can only barely feel any more. But we’re also watched: we are creating presentations and papers that will be assessed. In case you think that the “we” I just typed is a literary fiction, I should tell you that this blogging is a brief break from the final work of editing an almost year-long essay project I plan to submit this afternoon to Rhetoric & Society Quarterly. I am very conscious of the critical assessment my efforts will have to bear up under. I already feel the Mordor-like editorial eye turning in my direction.
But, in truth, the media sociologists tell us that watching and being watched is a pretty constant condition for us today in a world lined with speakers and screens. Even for those few moments of the day when we’re not updating our status or posting a photo or “checking in” as to our location via smartphone, we are all playing roles. That’s not to say that we’re being artificial or hypocritical. But we’re always adapting to the givens of a particular audience and setting. The pace and fragmentation of contemporary life don’t really allow us “just to be me.” We’re always having to play multiple parts in the cast of quotidian life. Earnest Goffman wrote a prescient book some decades back called The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Yes, exactly.
So how do we bear ourselves (note the careful spelling of that verb there) in such cultural conditions? The answer we, and the theorists we turn to, is that we can’t get away from experiencing everyday life as performance space. We might as well flex and roll and go with the sociological fact of the matter: all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. We have our entrances and our exits, as the Bard says, but (you and I might want to add) we never really get offstage.
But this past weekend, reading Psalm 139 for the thousand-thousandth time in my life, I got to thinking about a different sort of space we might find ourselves in. You know the psalm. It sings about God’s closeness to our very selves, when we get up, when we lie down, before we speak, before we can even think. “Such knowledge,” says the psalmist, “is too wonderful for me.” And later, he adds, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God.”
Why precious? Doesn’t this psalm address a God whose attention is actually rather smothering? God knows my thoughts. God knows my words. God hems me in behind and before. It’s like, OMG–but with none of the flippancy and all the uneasiness.
But then I got to thinking about the ways our lives are always framed by others’ attention, often by a camera lens, sometimes on a screen or through a speaker, always on some sort of stage. And when you think about it, when you try to feel the quality of that life as a stranger might, you realize it’s all pretty entertaining and pretty smothering. We’re always thinking about how things will come off. Anxious whether we’ll be perceived as sufficiently smart or fit or just, well, up to it. Whatever the current it is.
But God’s attention is different. Instead of closing in on you, it makes room. Or so I’m thinking. It gives place. The attention of the Triune God is less like someone saying, “Here’s a corner of the spotlight that’s just for you!” and more like someone making room in a circle of people talking. You know that edgewise movement you make, opening your body sideways, to allow someone into a conversation? Something like that. The hemming in the psalmist describes may actually be more of a stay, a shade, against the hot attention we generally endure.
I’m thinking maybe we should call that prayed space. That is, space where we feel involved, participatory, communicative, without feeling the angst that comes with being an audience member wishing you were a performer instead–and then discovering in a disquieting rush that you’ve become a performer without knowing it.
And so instead, we pray for space to live well:
Where can I go from your regard? Or where can I flee from your attention?
If I ascend to the stage I desire, you are there; if I make my bed in the hell that the stage has become, you are there.
Search me. Know me. Find me as I am there. And from here to there and beyond, lead me in the way everlasting. Amen.