There’s a YouTube video called “Validation” that I really like. It’s 16 minutes long, and I recall finding it heartwarming (albeit corny) when I watched it as a teenager. What I find interesting now, as an adult, is just how well it aged. It’s a video short about this guy who simply compliments people in a genuine way and makes them feel good about themselves, but what I didn’t realize before is that they’re all adults. They’re people running a business. They’re people dealing with sickness. They’re people going on vacation, visiting shops, looking for love. At the center is a guy tries to make people happy.
The semi-profound thing the video expresses is that they simply never hear it. The business owner. The police officer. The paraplegic woman with a daughter she loves. They live their lives without feeling appreciated for what they do, the protagonist reminds them what they’re worth, and…16-minute spoiler…we find out that the person who does the most to make people feel happy has never actually found real happiness or been validated himself.
The first thing I think of when I think of “validation” is social media, for better or worse. Maybe Nir Eyal is right…maybe the point is overdone. It would seem a bit ludicrous to tell companies like Facebook that they should make their apps worse, so that they don’t have things like a like button or a convenient way to remember birthdays.
Social media provided us with a way to validate other people for everything. Nice photo? Like. Post about a new business? Like. Social media allows people to quickly express how much they approve of each other. It’s a genuine gesture, but I think everyone understands on some level that it’s not quite the same as its real-life equivalent.
My evidence? Exhibit A, the world is not at peace. Had social media connected people as it was originally intended to, and spread happiness and acceptance as it was originally intended to, the world would not be so divided. Political posts would be about compassion for each other. Foreign agents would hijack threads for the sole purpose of reminding us just how lovely we are. By creating accounts in social media, we willingly participate in a system that promotes unity and division at the same time.
To be fair, real validation can be expressed via social media — I find that this is often not the case, but it can be. Real validation is a compliment with weight, a much-needed reminder of something that’s true.
It says “we see you.” It says “we appreciate you.”
The Value of Stories
Almost all writers, with the rare exception of the vacuous, soulless entities known as “technical writers,” seek to create emotion. They want their readers to feel something, something that’s real. It doesn’t really matter if it’s happiness, or anger, or despair…it just has to be a real feeling.
Then, after all that, there needs to be a resolution. For all the pain and suffering the readers are forced to vicariously experience, there has to be some meaning that comes out from the words. By bringing a reader into a dark place, there’s an opportunity to show them how great the light is. Maybe they don’t see it yet. Maybe they still see the darkness created by the words. But resolution is everything. Stories, unlike the incomprehensible shapes of reality, have a definitive meaning. By creating comprehensible shapes, and by resonating with a reader’s own experience and understanding, stories have the ability to create their own special, customized meaning.
No one is going to be here forever. Sometimes we lose touch with people, and sometimes tragedy happens, and sometimes people just leave…for whatever reason.
Maybe what I liked so much about this video was — another 16-minute spoiler — the development. There are two people who simply care about each other. One person helps another in a time of need. He doesn’t know who she is, he just does it. That genuineness, that willingness to help someone without a sense of personal gain is what makes the protagonist likable. He falls out of depression not because he realizes he deserves better than it, but because he realizes happiness is all around him. It’s in everyone and in everything, he just has to bring it out. Finally, in his acts, we as the viewers begin to recognize just how far these acts of kindness go.
Everyone alive, no matter how happy they may seem, is experiencing some degree of pain. This is the human condition. Lao Tzu describes pain as the natural consequence of having a body.
Beyond the pain, beyond the struggle, there is meaning. Everyone has a story, and in everyone’s story is meaning. Some people really need to hear how great they are, in a genuine way. No one is going to be here forever, and the people who don’t hear how much they mean today might not be around tomorrow. They’ll move. They’ll leave. Or a tragedy will occur. We don’t really know. Life is uncertain.
But right now, right here, we’re all here. Maybe we’re really angry. Maybe we’ve had heated arguments about something. Maybe some four-year election is coming up, and it’s the most important thing in the world…so important that it’s worth ending a seemingly lifelong friendship.
We’re going to have our fights, and we’re going to argue, but we’re also not going to be here forever. Some people will move. Some people will get old and move on. Everyone is experiencing some degree of unknowable pain.
So…what’s it going to be? Are you going to stay angry, or are you going to do your best to let go, find the light in the darkness, and try to start again?
“How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”
— David Foster Wallace