A Witness to Life
Reflections on facts and framing
A couple weeks ago I left the raging New Mexico wildfires to begin the journey back to Vermont. Along the way, I stopped in Tulsa Oklahoma to visit the newly opened Bob Dylan Center, where I encountered this summary of Dylan’s philosophy:
Nothing is true and everything is allowed.
It reminded me of Werner Herzog’s notion of ecstatic truth — that deeper truths can only be accessed through invention and imagination, that the prosaic “factual truth” is merely the truth of accountants, incapable of delivering any true illumination.
In this age of information warfare, conspiracy theories, fake news, deep fakes, and alternative facts, it is important to understand the power of framing — that in reality, framing matters more than facts. I recently had the chance to experience the truth of this in practice. I was on retreat in the wilderness of New Mexico, where I paired up with a partner. We took turns telling our life stories to one another as victim narratives — after every detail, no matter how positive, we concluded with a negative framing (some kind of “but”). Then, we switched partners and took turns telling our life stories as hero narratives — after every detail, no matter how challenging, we concluded with a positive framing (some kind of “and”). It was astonishing to witness the difference. In the first pairing, we felt exhausted, depleted, depressed, and eager to escape the conversation. In the second pairing, we felt energized, engaged, elated, and eager to continue conversing. The facts in each case were essentially the same; all that really changed was the framing.
When we emerged from the wilderness, I remember turning on my cell phone for the first time in a week and pulling up The New York Times. As I scrolled through the headlines, all I could see was negative framing. The factual content of the headlines hardly seemed to matter at all; what I saw instead was their energy — fear, shock, panic, outrage, anxiety, blame, horror, futility. When we’re constantly force-fed a diet of such negativity, is it any wonder that so many negative situations continue to persist in the world?
Information truly is food — and the phrase “you are what you eat” applies just as much to media as it does to meals. As we take information into our bodies, we’re shaped by what we consume. As the saying goes: you’ve been framed.
Hoping to create an oasis of positivity, sincerity, and connection, I built an online storytelling tool called Cowbird from 2009–2011. I envisioned Cowbird as a free (and ad-free) space for people around the world to share their life stories, which could then be automatically interconnected together through metadata, in order to create a “public library of human experience” as a learning resource for the commons.
The early Cowbird captured the hearts and imaginations of people in almost 200 countries, who used it to share around 100,000 personal stories. It was a beautiful space to witness. However, as time passed, many Cowbird authors drifted away to newer platforms like Instagram and Medium, and Cowbird began to exhibit the same dynamics as other social media spaces — users competing for followers, comments, and likes. Despite its pure intentions, Cowbird was becoming yet another attention economy. So in 2017, after five years of operations, I decided to close Cowbird to new contributions, pledging to keep it online as an historical archive instead. Some of Cowbird’s most passionate users were saddened by this decision, so I invited them to visit me in Vermont that summer, to meet one another in person.
In this eighteenth ritual of In Fragments, I create a grieving ritual for the closure of the Cowbird online community. I prepare a collection of my mother’s silver picture frames by removing their glass and their backings. I place these empty frames in a lush grove of ash trees down by the water at High Acres Farm. I invite around forty Cowbird authors to enter the grove with bare feet and in silence. Each author is invited to choose a silver frame to take home as a gift. The frames are hung to highlight exquisite elements of nature: pieces of moss, delicate leaves, rough gray bark.
As the authors find their frames, they use them to frame the views of what they see around them. They begin to understand that every moment of perception is in fact an act of framing: that where and how we choose to look determines what we see.
The negative framing of my experience with Cowbird might be that it sucked up multiple years of my life without much to show for it, that it never achieved the ubiquity of other more popular platforms, and that it never became the “Wikipedia of human experience” that I had hoped. The positive framing might be that it was the right tool for a particular moment in time that subsequently passed, that it created some beauty in the world for a while, that its closure helped me and others learn to let go of containers that no longer feel true and alive, or that its most passionate fans helped to seed a new energy of arts and culture here at High Acres Farm by participating in this ritual with me, for which I continue to be very grateful.
In closing, I’d like to share a beautiful scene I witnessed last week while visiting New York City. I was sitting on a bench on the west side of Manhattan, watching the sun go down over the Hudson River, as the light sparkled off the water, casting the city in a wondrous golden glow. Two old men were sitting next to me on the bench. One of them was African-American, and looked as though he may have been homeless. The other one was Caucasian, with a well-groomed white beard and a small straw hat. As far as I could tell, both men were mute. They were gesturing to one another without speaking — not using sign language, but simple universal gestures that anyone could understand. The first man waved his hand at the setting sun, and then he moved his hand to his heart, patting his chest several times. Then with both hands he made wide radiating motions outwards from his heart, as if the sunlight were emanating from within him. Then he moved his hands to the sides of his eyes, and made the motion of crying, as though tears were falling down his cheeks. Then he moved his hands to the edges of his mouth, and made the motion of pulling his mouth into a smile, while flicking away his imaginary tears. The other man was watching him this whole time, nodding emphatically, as if to say, “I know. I know.” They continued like this for almost an hour, marveling at the great beauty of the sunset before them, while runners and rollerbladers whizzed by, oblivious to their silent exchange. When the sun finally set, the two men got up from the bench, raised their hands to bow to one another in gratitude, and then set off in their separate ways, as twilight wrapped around them.