When I came across the Dear Sugar advice column by Cheryl Strayed, I read one post after another in rapid, wide-eyed succession. The open-air authenticity of her words, folded into her experience-driven, cinematic storytelling, and layered among her life-affirming, cathartic packets of wisdom, is, simply, stunning. At once raw and evocative, her words have a way of weaving themselves into an orchestra of emotional connection. More Shakespearean monologue than Emily Post, more been-there than you-should, her letters are powerful lessons in empathy.
Cheryl as Sugar dove headlong into a pool of other people’s desperations and longings and confessions, and decided not to fake some form of moral noblesse oblige, but instead to give of her imperfect self. By forsaking all convention and infusing her advice columns with her own helter-skelter, deeply-lived, and endlessly fascinating life, she has perhaps unwittingly become the paragon of her art form. From viral Internet sensation to New York Times bestseller to public radio podcasting, her work has changed the course of countless lives.
Dear Sugar achieved prominence in part because we realized as a society the relative poverty we experienced when we were only given advice on a golden platter, bereft of context, of story, of, essentially, reality. That, alternatively, there is so much power in stigma-susceptible personal disclosure. What this signifies is a tipping-point shift in our culture around vulnerability. People are embracing it, in more complicated and deeper forms and ways. Customarily, those who share traditionally private aspects of their lives online have often been stigmatized as exhibitionistic, or even exploitative. Cheryl did not simply overshare. She skirted the line of exhibitionism, but never careened into its reputation-tarnishing heart. She saved herself from such a fate through the dignity of her greater purpose: her sincere interest in helping others. As our society is progressing in our maturity, purpose, and discretion in sharing the darker parts of our lives, the world is responding ever more positively.
The same theme is appearing with greater regularity across the web in the microblogging photography of Humans of New York, the social advocacy of Fight the New Drug, and the life-coaching treasury of Momastery. The phenomenal popularity of these channels of imperfect and authentic stories of regular people is not a sign of the public’s distressing eagerness to feast on — and shame — the private lives of others, but an indication that a significant portion of society is moving towards a more empathetic, humble, and connective place. Technology is at the forefront of fueling this connection, as demonstrated by Sheryl Sandberg’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s respective public reflections on Facebook of her husband’s death and his wife’s three miscarriages. It is this refined, empathy-illuminated vulnerability that is saving the world, one story at a time, from its own disorienting anxieties and smothering insecurities.
May we be ever open to the light that darkness can give.