(Excerpt from an unpublished essay)

“Cherish the land that no one owns” 

As the spaces available for solitude vanish in the age of social media, a prince “tells his truth”

By Rhonda Joy Rubinson

. . . once you go into inner being you will find that everything you encompass, in any direction you choose, is your own Louise Nevelson, sculptor

The most moving greeting card I ever received came to me in 2007 as a thank-you note. It has sat on the upper shelf of my desk ever since; I commune with it often.  The card features Boreal Mist, a luminous landscape by nature photographer Jim Brandenburg, printed on ecru-hued recycled rag paper and folded into three panels.  On the cover of the card (the rightmost panel), there is a tiny, engraved caption that I vaguely recall as originally sepia colored by ink that has long since faded away, rendering the caption nearly invisible save under the closest examination. The top line reads: Cherish the land that no one owns.  Below and to the right of that koan-like phrase is the name of the author of those words, in caps:  LI PO, and beneath that Tang dynasty poet’s name, the year, in parentheses: (750 B.C.)

The pairing of the work of Brandenburg, acclaimed as the worthy successor to Ansel Adams, with the words of Li Po, famed for his love of wine, the moon, and nature, creates a potent, heady message: that morality and beauty strengthen and uplift each other.  The intoxication resulting from this fusion, like all such, is not without its dangers – legend has it that Li Po, who was so devoted to wine that he wrote hundreds of poems about the joys of imbibing and inebriation, met his death by drowning after stretching out of a boat to embrace the reflection of his second love, the moon, on the water.  Of course, he was drunk at the time.

For years, I never considered the likely intent of joining Brandenburg’s landscape to Li Po’s poetry: that nature, particularly wilderness that remains undisturbed by human activity, is precious, and that we must – intentionally – cherish it.  Thus understood, the card is an impassioned call to activist actions, such as developing sensitive, effective policies of wilderness conservation, judicious land management, and climate change mitigation, all with the laudable goal of “cherishing the land that no one owns.”


The landscape within

But that’s not how I understood the message of the card when I received it.  Rather, it spoke to me of a different “land”: the inner world each of us carries in the solitude of our souls.  This is a world that shares deep commonalities with the natural one.  Our interior land can be wondrous and disturbing, thrilling and terrifying, often provoking clashing emotions at the same time, just as natural land does.  If we find the courage to explore its terrain, we will discover glorious mountains of various heights, from rolling hills to vertiginous Alps verdant with patches of sun-splashed flower gardens and variegated forests of trees; these are manifestations of love both given and received in our lives.  This flora responds to gentlest of proddings, creating a healthful environment that permits mental, emotional, and spiritual growth, even spurring regeneration if part of our interior landscape has been lost in response to some past assault.  These areas of our inner land must be nurtured to survive.  Of course, our inner world also harbors perilous, even noxious places where life cannot take root at all.  Some of these dead places were made so through our own choices, others were destroyed by those who harmed us by injecting poison into our lives; the result is in an interior toxic waste dump that attacks the very core of our being.  These brutalized areas, too, demand our attention, urgently. Left neglected, they can dangerously weaken, destabilize, even kill us.

Finally, also akin to that of the natural world is our inner climate, complete with storms that can arise with little warning; tranquility that can flood us with peace; alternations of heat and frost, rare (and rarefied) clear-day visibility and blinding fog; bright fulfilling days and fearsome, terror-filled nights.

Taken together, these features constitute our inner world, the land that no one else owns, the land that we must cherish, because this is where our essence resides.  It is the primary source of our identity in its strength, and its fragility.  Its health determines how we approach and engage the outside world and the beings who inhabit it.  And – here’s the key – we can only fully access this precious world while in solitude.

But for us to enter into solitude, we need privacy and silence, both of which are in increasingly short supply these days.  We are so bombarded by outside stimuli that it is hard to find space or time to be alone and quiet, and even if we do, we recoil at the prospect of “empty” time, bereft of insistent demands for attention.  Of course, there have always been introverts and extroverts, loners and social creatures, but we are now so encouraged, even expected, to share every bit of minutia from our lives that some of us even feel compelled to set up cameras to livestream our every moment, no matter how banal, to any audience willing to watch.  The result is that many of us are now living by the reflection of those who react to our posts and feeds, so much so that we have come to believe that our true identity is the person in that media mirror.  Now, many of us can no longer believe in our existence independent of that feedback loop.

Thus, our inner land lies fallow, unexplored.  Ignored, it is left dangerously untended, and it certainly is not cherished.


The cybersphere and our inner landscape

For most, from the least known among us up to and including the most famous and powerful, it has become well-nigh impossible to live without at least some engagement with media in general, and social media in particular.  We are first tempted, then become intoxicated, but eventually suffer damage, due to social media’s siren-song promise to fulfill our need for healthy human connection.   It is dangerously easy to fall prey to the fervent hope that increasing our time online might heal the deepest wounds in our souls.

Now, we all could – should – make informed, intentional, and disciplined choices regarding how we obtain and ingest information, as well as the amount of time we spend online, particularly on social media.  Of course, there’s no denying that online support groups and therapy can be lifelines in a crisis, but the consequences of our (too often rash, and often non-existent) decisions on what we consume online and for how long are becoming more and more apparent every day.  We are now getting hard data that shows how harmful living our lives primarily through our screens can be: we have become aware through research what most of us have known through personal experience or anecdotally, that social media is a fast-growing cause of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. This is true not only for users of social media, but also for the stars who are powerful drivers of our consumption.  The damage extends to our newest kinds of celebrities (influencers, viral YouTube, TikTok personalities) as well as those who would have been famous in earlier cultures and media incarnations (movie stars, television personalities).

The harm even reaches a contemporary iteration of an ancient celebrity culture, one that even pre-dates the invention of the printing press:  the British monarchy. The result of mixing modern royalty and the current media environment – especially by younger royals – is analogous to mixing fuel oil and fertilizer: the result is combustion, followed by a cloud of toxic fumes that can linger in our cultural atmosphere for years after the initial blast.


Looking for love in the social media mirror

The cause of that combustion is rooted in the most primal need of our being, the universal desire of human beings to be loved.  That desire is our ultimate purpose; it forms the core of our personhood.  But the phrase “to be loved” is a fraught shorthand for a bewildering array of needs and neuroses, of physical and emotional desires both healthy and perverse.  And lying close by to this longing for love is a simpler need: to be valued – or at the very least, respected – for who we truly are. This is true for all of us despite the tons of time and gobs of money we spend in creating various feints and disguises to prevent others from accessing our true selves.  Sadly, none of this frantic image management produces the desired outcomes of love and respect, but rather their opposites of hatred or even worse, invisibility.  Today, we describe the wound of invisibility or minimization as “not being seen, not being heard.”

This hurts us, badly.  But then, what to do with our pain?   Wounded, we are forced into choices.  Do we keep silent, thrust our pain down deep inside where it cannot be opened to healing while we pretend that everything is just fine? Or do we self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, sex?  Perhaps we seek relief in commiseration with friends or, more helpfully, begin a course of therapy.  Some sufferers embark on a faith journey, seeking healing through a faith tradition or meditation practice.  Of course, none of these attempts at managing psychic pain are mutually exclusive; in fact, it is common to try more than one, sometimes serially, and often several at the same time.

To the options above we can add one other approach, another method for treating psychic pain that is valid, simple in concept, and benign on its surface, which is “telling one’s truth”.  But let the user beware: “telling one’s truth” has immense power both to help and to harm, to liberate and to enslave. Thus, it needs to be deployed with care, in small, judicious doses, even as our advanced technology makes the current reach of our truth-telling infinitely wider in scope and stronger in impact than the even best-selling truth-telling books of the past.  This combination of social media and self-revelation creates ripe conditions for a bruising culture war, as the pre- and post- social media cultures that uneasily coexist in our world form up to do battle.  And the very real consequences for the protagonists on all sides of this conflict can be devastating, as we are now seeing play out in the wake of the social media shock wave created by the release of Prince Harry’s memoir Spare, the prince’s attempt to find love, acceptance, and healing through a media blitz that exposed his raw pain to the world.



The princess and her younger prince

The first blockbuster “tell-all” memoir of the modern era was by Harry’s mother Princess Diana (with biographer Andrew Morton) entitled Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words (1992). (The most recent examples of the genre are by Britney Spears and Jada Pinkett-Smith).  Diana’s book was written to tell her version of her failed marriage to then-Prince Charles, while casting copious blame for their divorce upon her ex-husband, his mistress, and the royal family.  As the immensely popular “People’s Princess,” Diana garnered widespread sympathy after sharing her very relatable marital and mental health issues with the world.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Diana’s younger son, Prince Harry (who inherited his mother’s bountiful charisma as well as, it seems, her brooding nature) has followed in her footsteps by publishing his own similarly styled tell-all, hoping for the same sympathetic result.  In the flood of interviews, podcasts, articles, and reviews accompanying the book’s release, the consistent refrain from Harry himself, as well as from the many who have reviewed or commented on it, is that Spare reflects Harry’s attempt at reclaiming his own narrative, which he feels has been stolen by the controlling nature of the same royal family that haunted his mother.  And like Diana, Harry seems compelled to set his version of the record straight by “telling his own truth.”

As was true of his mother, it is easy to sympathize with Harry.  The crushing pressure of growing up in the public eye constantly hounded by paparazzi in combination with the hide-bound constraints of an institution that has been stained over many centuries by the arrogance, brutality, and racism of a world-wide empire would be hard for any human to bear.  And that’s even before considering the awful trauma that the twelve-year old Harry suffered when he was forced to march behind the hearse carrying his tragically deceased mother in the glare of her globally televised funeral.  Harry’s wounds are understandably deep.  Much has been made of his privileged station in life, but that is not the yardstick by which to judge his pain. Emotional and mental suffering know no class, though their causes can vary, and of course are often exacerbated by one’s social and economic standing.


Yet even with a predisposition to sympathy, reading Spare can be almost unbearably painful, and not only because of the agony and anger that burn through practically every page.  My particular discomfort arose from a sense of dread which grew with every passing revelation that publishing this book was a colossal mistake, one that will have exactly opposite effect of what Harry dearly hoped.  This is not to say that Harry shouldn’t have written it at all; he could have done so as a therapeutic exercise, then left it on a file in his computer or in a desk drawer unreleased, at least for now.  But instead, he chose to release it during a long period of white-hot fury at what he views as a lifelong pattern of being victimized by pretty much everyone and every event in his life.

Piling even more weight on top of this already heavy, heavy heap of trauma is Harry’s misfortune to be a member of first generation who came of age during the social media boom. (Remember that Diana’s life ended before the explosion of social media.  It is frightening to imagine how much more painful her life could have been had she been as doggedly pursued online as she was by television and print media.)  The timing of Harry’s birth into an uber famous, historically dysfunctional family at this peak historical moment of social media primacy makes fighting off its tenacious hold even more difficult for him than it is for the rest of us who carry less historical baggage.  It therefore follows that some of the more disturbing aspects of Spare reflect some of the worst attributes of social media, like the compulsion to overshare.  Even the attempts to gin up massive support from the public to validate his experiences and somehow “win” the media battle with his family are manifestations of the widespread, very unhealthy obsession with “likes” and online “friends.” If anyone could benefit from silence, privacy, and solitude, it would be Harry.

(End of excerpt)