What The Dress Says About Us

Yesterday the primary disagreement in the world focused on a single dress and its mysterious color—white and gold or blue and black? #TheDress swept social media and took center stage over news about a potential shut down of Homeland Security, 2000 Christians kidnapped by ISIS, and net neutrality. What does this say about us? I’m afraid to answer, but also not surprised.

I get tired of hearing about how selfish our country is, the growing apathetic majority, and a decrease in civic engagement. Those things might be true, but they are also depressing. I try to be hopeful, rooting for my fellow humans and trusting that things can change. And then the Internet breaks over colors, something we all thought was a definite as black and white—or would it now be gold and blue?

The reason #TheDress caused such an uproar is because it targets our very notions of fact and truth. The United States is a culture polarized by a desire for clear answers. Things are either right or wrong, here or there, Republican or Democrat. You either believe in this, or you don’t. There are some people who try to champion the middle ground, but even that turns into its own separate platform.

In contrast, The Dress highlights the subjective nature of our world and makes us question things we thought were certain. Despite the overwhelming attempts of optometrists and graphic designers to explain the science behind it, many of us skim over those parts of the news story (I know I did). I don’t want to hear that it is “subjective” or “based on lighting” or “fluctuating between our optical rod and cones.” Technical intricacies are annoying. I want a definitive answer.

But that isn’t how the world works. During the semester I spent abroad in India, I was constantly frustrated by the pluralistic nature of things. People were so comfortable with uncertainty, every Hindu god had multiple names, and there was never an easy answer to even the most basic problems. In many eastern cultures this is the case, and people live within that conflict in a way that baffles my American mind. Now I wonder if they would even care about what color that dress is.

As silly as #TheDress phenomenon is, it points out some important things about our culture, beyond our sad obsession with news that is not really news.
  • We are easily upset by disagreement
  • We want definitive answers
  • It is hard for us to accept subjectivity

Even for those who pretend to not care, deep down you wonder how it is possible and what the truth is. Anne Lamott described this sensation well in her newest book Small Victories:
     “Redefinition is a nightmare—we think we’ve arrived, in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate.”

Sometimes you have to redefine what you think you know for certain. In a culture that clings to absolutes of right and wrong, this truly is a nightmare. Trying to admit that The Dress is a different color than how you see it will be as uncomfortable as actually wearing it (because let’s be honest that dress isn’t the best).

In the end, the color of that dress really doesn’t make any practical difference in our world. But it matters for our sense of self, the security in what we think we know, and how sometimes we need to accept the possibility that something else might be true or someone might see it a different way.

Does uncertainty make you uncomfortable?
What can we take away from this sensational disagreement?


A Letter to All the Letters Out There

Dear Letters on the Internet,

You have become quite popular lately. Good for you. Every blogger and internet sensation knows how to work your format into a manifesto of anger or forgiveness or inspiration–whatever they so choose. You are malleable, flexible, like a rubber band that can encompass any hurt or joy or frustration that needs to be voiced into the abyss of the internet. But is that your purpose?

At age 12 I went to counseling, because my teenage angst had found the darker chasm of my family depression and my mom saw it in my eyes. Girls are just mean at that age. We are all so awkward and uncomfortable, squirming in our own skin till our words get caught in our throats, stopping at the Adam’s apple of original sin to remind us we live in a broken world. The words lodge in there, choked in a traffic jam of insecurity.

The counselor told me to write a letter to my friend that had hurt me. I didn’t have to give it to her, it would just be good for me to get the words out somehow. I loathed the idea, feeling like pen and paper were some kind of condolence for an unfixable world of heartbreak. Why couldn’t I just say it to her face? I don’t actually remember if I ever did either.

So I know why you work. Letters to a daughter, a father, the gunman who shot down our humanity, the bomber who broke up our security, and the other party who tries to sweep all this pain under the rug of politics–you have something to say.

But you letters–I wonder–do you ever make it to the ear drums of your target? Or is that not your main concern? Perhaps are you really speaking to everyone else out there, the commentators and cyber-space refugees, anyone else who will listen? What about the name on the first line–is it only mail to be returned to sender, or do you actually find your way to them?

It’s not you, letters on the internet, it’s me. Because I am a believer in your art form, your inherent design, the written word where pen and paper no longer become a condolence but instead a conversation about truth. You are more than a flimsy rubber band, because rubber bands may keep things contained but they also leave imprints of a pressured constraint.

No, you can be so much more. You can be the dove that actually brings its olive branch to a shipwrecked soul, you can find your way (granted USPS actually delivers) to the heart that has forgotten what grace is, and your words can escape the trappings of sidebars and search engines to find a face–eyes, ears, nose, and mouth–that needs to feel you directly in front of it.

Oh my letters, oh my stars, can’t you join together to remember the beauty of being created? Created for a hands-on-blind-eyes kind of impact, where you are directed not to the ears of the internet, but to the sole one who you are speaking to through an envelope in the fingertips or reverberations that make their way past the Adam’s apple and into the space between two bodies.

I know you work sometimes, and there is an element of community when the multitudes can share these words together. But I fear you’ve forgotten your ancestral heritage of jail-cell letters written to a specific audience, over-seas communication between kindred minds and hearts, or the simple lunch box note to remind someone they are loved. Because that’s what we all need to hear–that we are loved.

But I’m convinced that the avenue of communication is crucial, because you lose pieces of your sincerity when you have to travel through the woods of the internet and leave a trail of crumbs to find your way back. But when all you need to do is pass within the same walls as your target, when all you need to do is intentionally travel from one inbox to one other, when all you need to do is be purposefully labelled with one return address and one destination–the words can hold all their original weight and meaning.

Let’s be honest about our intentions, and intentional about where we direct our honest opinions. Communication builds community. The internet is a helpful tool, a highway maybe, but we can’t forget the value of words spoken face to face, snail mail sentiments, and even the things that are spoken between two people in the same space without any words at all.

A Writer


This post goes out to all my wonderful friends who have sent me letters lately--even from afar your words help remind me I am loved.

This post goes out to all my wonderful friends who have sent me letters lately–even from afar your words help remind me I am loved.