The social network allowed me to make peace with hurt I had caused in the past.

By Catherine Ryan Gregory
Todor Tsvetkov/Getty Images

These days social media is loud. It’s where fake news and all caps and hateful hashtags reign. “I’m taking a break from Facebook,” a friend will post every so often, as if the platform were an abusive boyfriend or a bottle of whisky you reach for too often.

Every so often, though, I end up taking the Facebook-is-not-evil side in a debate with a friend. After all, I point out, the social media platform isn’t totally trivial: It helps me stay in touch with far-flung friends. I use it to network with other writers and RSVP to events I wouldn’t hear about otherwise. And I get to watch loved ones’ kids grow from a gummy newborn into a child grinning at the camera because the tooth fairy left him a quarter.

What I never mention, though, is that I’m grateful to Facebook for another reason. It helped me forgive myself for a horrible, secret thing I did more than 20 years ago.

I grew up with A (as I’ll call her here), and she and I became best friends. We formed a Save the Earth Club and held meetings in her living room, which mostly consisted of writing down lists of endangered animals. (Why? No idea. It seemed important, though.) We planted vegetables in her family’s yard and camped in her backyard in the summer. We stayed up late watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? and worked for hours on our gum wrapper chain, which we were sure would someday make it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

Then middle school started. As we grew up into our mature, pre-teen selves (cue eye roll), we gravitated toward other friends and saw less of each other. Then, for some reason I can’t fathom, I wrote her a mean note. A really, really mean note. I can’t recall all the details, but it included cruel comments about her older brother, who was struggling, and that it was meant to be hurtful.

It succeeded. I succeeded.

She showed the handwritten note to a teacher, and the three of us held a meeting. I remember my social studies teacher’s eyes—usually crinkled in a smile—locking mine, and he seemed genuinely confused. I remember A’s tears.

Did I think I was being funny? Was I lashing out because my mom was sick enough from cancer that she had to move to a hospital two hours from home? Was I just a typical, cruel pre-teen? I have no idea. But that note split the two of us apart completely. We no longer chatted, and I avoided eye contact when we passed in the halls.

We went our separate ways, but every so often I thought of A and the horrible letter I wrote to her. I imagined her hurt and the betrayal she must have felt. Without fail, my guilt and shame grabbed me in the gut, making me feel physically ill. This continued years and years after middle school. I’d be walking to one of my grad school classes, hurrying under the unfurling spring leaves of the campus’s maple trees, when—out of the blue—I’d think of that note. I developed a strange coping mechanism: I’d hum out loud to drown out the memory.

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Then, one summer day a few years ago, I bumped into A on the street in our hometown. We caught up for a few minutes. We were both doing well, and the encounter was pleasant. We ended up friending each other on Facebook.

After that, she would occasionally pop up on my feed. I caught glimpses into her life—her marriage, a growing small business, and then a daughter, whose smile is bookended with the hints of A’s dimples. Then she was pregnant again, and we each had our second baby mere weeks apart.

I sometimes commented on her posts. Nothing profound, no heartfelt apologies, no regrets over severed friendships—just the usual likes and gushing over sonograms and baby pictures. Sometimes she liked my comments back. It felt as if she were virtually taking my outstretched hand.

Then out of the blue, another elementary school friend reached out—yes, on Facebook. She suggested that she, A, a few other old friends, and I get together with our kids. I hadn’t seen these folks in years, but the next time I returned to our hometown, we met up at a local kid-friendly spot. Yes, it was occasionally awkward. Yes, there were lapses in conversation when we ran out of family members and mutual friends to talk about. But the morning also felt healing. It was good to see we had all grown up a bit since the days of playing MASH and believing that lists of endangered animals could actually save them.

Since the election, I’ve tried to stay away from Facebook. I found myself sucked in deep to comment threads I’d fume over for days, so I read e-books on my phone instead of mindlessly scrolling through status updates.

Yet as obnoxious and superficial as Facebook can be, I’ve also found it can be quiet, gentle—a place of subtlety where healing can happen in the expanse between likes and shares. The remoteness and artificiality of Facebook—the very things critics bash about the social networking site—allowed me to tentatively pick up the frayed end of an old friendship.

I can’t say if A forgives me for that letter I wrote her roughly two decades ago, or even if she’s thought of it since then. But, as the headline of an article she recently posted to her timeline read, “It’s for you to know that you forgive.”

I still regret that cruel note. But the memory of it no longer pushes against my heart, choking the breath out of me. I no longer have to hum to drown out the sound of my own self-criticism.

One “like” at a time, I’m learning to forgive myself.

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