while preparing to help host an opening night reception for a professional performance company on whose executive board i serve, my phone rang. some of the costumes had just been delivered to the theater unfinished. it was two and a half hours before opening night curtain and our bungee attached aerialist’s costume needed to be pieced together with safety pins. the pins they had scrounged at the theater were flimsy, leading them to open when the fabric stretched. given that an open pin would likely prick our performer, we needed pins with more heft. we needed substance over style. function over form. we needed me to find pins made of steel.
come to find out, most modern day safety pins are made of nickel or even lower density metals. cheaper to produce, these mass marketed safety pins are the far-from-sturdy cousin of steel and brass ones and bend when forced through even moderately thick fabric. upon exertion they open, exposing the point of the pin to the skin of the wearer. frustratingly, it’s impossible to tell these lower quality fasteners from their higher quality counterparts when they are tucked away in their packaging. in fact, they look freakishly the same and seem like such a good deal.
knowing i was in a hurry (not only did i need to find the pins but i needed to get them across town to the theater where i would pin the costume together before curtain) i raced into a store close to my home. once in the correct aisle i counted no fewer than 20 different types of safety pins. none of them, however, mentioned steel. there were pins made of nickel, nickel plated aluminum, rust resistant plastic coated nickel, and so on. i raced off to store number two. here i encountered 15 varieties of non steel pins. finally, at store number three i found them. mission accomplished.
as i dashed to the theater i thought about all the times i’ve used safety pins of late. it occurred to me that the times i have looked for a pin were similar to this moment. i couldn’t identify a time when i needed such a fastener when i wasn’t in some kind of rush or precarious situation. there was the day when my wrap dress kept unwrapping as i opened the door to the waiting room each hour. there was the frantic search before my son’s job interview when his button went missing. there was the moment when, as i was being told one of my lectures was being streamed online, i realized that whenever i moved my right arm my blouse came unbuttoned (and if you’ve ever seen me speak you know that there is never a moment when i’m not moving both of my arms). none of these situations found me relaxed with time to spare. safety pins, it seems, are objects we look for when we need certain, immediate help. in these situations strength is always a plus and sometimes a necessity. if the artistic director hadn’t told me that “any old safety pin” wouldn’t work, that we needed steel in order to handle stretch, i would have picked up the first pin that i found. a couple of hours later i would have learned, the hard way and in front of an audience, that they couldn’t deal with the pressure of lycra and movement.
it seems to me that relying on safety pins on the grounds of appearance only is a bit like relying on our cyber networks with little care for our real life ones. cheaply produced, weak pins bend at the slightest exertion and pop open at the time security is needed most. you can buy ten times the quantity of these inexpensive pins for the price of ten high quality fasteners. and yet, can they be relied upon when the fabric is stretchy and the demand is great? maybe not.
new research coming out of utah valley university has found that as students spend increasing amounts of time on facebook they begin to report that their friends have better, happier lives than their own. they also agree less with the statement “life is fair” and, if their facebook friend list includes high numbers of people they don’t actually know in real life, they appear to be even more certain that other people consistently have better lives.
it seems that many of us know that we are made of weaker metals and assume that everyone else is made of steel. when our primary contact with others is through social networks where we only see that which others intentionally present we don’t get the opportunity to experience the reality that we all bend. every one of us. under some circumstance or situation or temptation or pressure. every one of us bends. is less than sturdy. is less than the best. is human.
even steel bends...if the pressure is great enough.
day after day i hear people lament how unacceptable they are and how seemingly uber acceptable their neighbors, friends, and associates are. i listen to deep wounds created by feeling ugly, stupid, or under-gifted. everyone, it seems, knows ten people who are more beautiful than they are, fifteen who are smarter, and multitudes who have more physical or relational resources than they do.
perhaps it’s time to broaden our perspectives. to consider that the wise comments, funny status updates, notes about accomplishments/parties/accolades, and photos that are posted on facebook are only glimpses into the lives of others. they tell us part of our friends’ stories but not all of them. just like looking at pins in their packaging tells us they are pins, not what they’re made of. expecting a nickel pin to do the work of steel is unrealistic. extrapolating about its strength by it’s shiny exterior is similarly so.
my hope is that we might use our social networks as places of jumping off for the building up of real and genuine connectedness. that we might explore our circles of friends in ways that allow us to know, genuinely, who is sturdy and who is not, who needs help and who can offer it. that we would set our expectations appropriately. that we might be able to become deeply strong fasteners when others need them and that we will not assume that our own strength pales in comparison to that of others. that we would be willing to seek out genuine authentic relatedness, depth, and quality even when quantity and appearance are so readily available as substitutions.