dog and pony shows

After getting out of college (it only took me ten years), I ended up in the investment business.  Right away, I started going to “dog and pony shows,” the common name for the meetings where companies talk up their stocks to professional investors.

The term is applied to other kinds of events too; a general definition is that of “an elaborate display or presentation, especially as part of a promotional campaign.”  We are subject to them throughout our lives, as we are sold products and services (and elected representatives), in person and through every possible media channel.

At the same time, we are marketing ourselves, day in and day out, to those around us.  Some of our displays are pretty elaborate too.

It’s human nature to put our best foot forward, to wear our bravest face for the world to see, hoping to mask the mess behind it.  We don’t want to let on when we are struggling, when we are hurting.  We maintain the facade for as long as we can.

Mostly we’re ashamed, but we also don’t want to burden others:  “You know how every day someone asks ‘how are you?’  And even if you’re totally dying inside, you just say ‘fine,’ so everyone can go about their day?”  (That quote is from the home page of a podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, which tries to be “the opposite of that” — that is, a forum in which the facade can crumble to let the humanity out.)

And so we tell our tales as we’d like them to be told, and listen to others tell theirs.  At times we fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with them, especially if they have a knack for making their lives sound much better than ours.

It’s useful to remember one of the twelve truths that Anne Lamott feels she’s learned from life and writing:  “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared, even the people who seem to have it most together.  They are much more like you than you would believe, so try not to compare your insides to other people’s outsides.  It will only make you worse than you already are.”

I’ll repeat that:  Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.

Reported rates of anxiety have been increasing in the United States for decades.  No doubt there are many factors involved, but there has been a noticeable spike up since the advent of social media.

Granted, at times people are open and honest on those platforms about difficult circumstances that they face, especially health issues and the loss of family members.  But there’s a fair chance that their lives as they appear on Facebook, for example, aren’t a faithful representation of their real ones, just carefully curated snippets of them.

It has always been thus.  I’m reminded of the people in Tom Waits’ song, “Putnam County,” who “lie about their lives and the places they’d been.”

These days, we have global electronic communities to which we can broadcast our dog and pony shows with ease.  I have been pondering the implications of that for a while; then I read what Bret Stephens wrote today:

“Tweeting and trolling are easy.  Mastering the arts of conversation and measured debate is hard.  Texting is easy.  Writing a proper letter is hard.  Looking stuff up on Google is easy.  Knowing what to search for in the first place is hard.  Having a thousand friends on Facebook is easy.  Maintaining six or seven close adult friendships over the space of many years is hard.  Swiping right on Tinder is easy.  Finding love — and staying in it — is hard.”

This is the challenge that we face.  Quitting those platforms altogether probably isn’t the answer for most of us.  There is real value in staying in touch and, as with other tools, it’s how we use them that determines their ultimate worth to us and to those with whom we interact.

But now and then we need to let the dogs and ponies rest for a while (and remember to not compare our insides to other people’s outsides).

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