I’ve wondered about this for a long time. It started when Adam died in seminary, in his mid twenties, vibrant and full of life, right up until he had a heart attack in the night. Or maybe it started before. I’d always had my turn of morbidity, and frequently wondered, given my heart condition, just how long I had to play in this world. And it’s hard enough on the people you who loved you, the people that maybe you lost contact with… but you know, for three years, every Sunday, i would watch my friend Kathy flip through the obituaries to see if anyone she knew had died. Kathy’s in the second half-century of her life, and close to retirement, but before I watched her, heard her comments, I had no idea that people even really read the obituaries.
But at least, if I die in my home town, or somewhere relatively near there, the people who think fondly of me, with whom I have lost touch for this reason and that… they will know when I die because apparently, people actually read the obituaries.
But web technology is too new to have had to deal with an entire generation of its users dying. Facebook doesn’t have a necrology yet.
I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. Because now it’s just here and there, and the people whose lives are utterly enmeshed with web communities – communities that require passwords for membership, communities that sprawl and perhaps are connected all on the links of one personal blog, but which perhaps are only cobbled together in the unedited lists of favorites and bookmarks – those people haven’t yet hit the human limit of life. But we will.
And so now, we deal with the anomalies, the random tragic murder of a recent college grad who was out celebrating – I’m sure his Facebook wall is overflowing. We deal with drunk drivers killing the writers we’ve been reading on fanfiction.net, good people, sweet people, a young girl whose life was turned around because of her writing (rest in peace, Stephanie).
And maybe this is a good thing. Not tragic death, that’s not what I mean. The fact that our networks are wider, larger, that we find ourselves in camaraderie with people whose name or handle we know (Stephanie=Daddy’s Little Cannibal), and we end up coming to know a slice of their soul as well, we end up coming to know something deep and beautiful about them, without knowing what the color of their skin is, without knowing how old or young they are, without knowing if they have a profession, or a vocation, or a job that pays the bills, or nothing at all as they try to get by on the underground economy. We come to know them without the prejudicial influence of good or bad manners, but rather on the basis of some joy, some love that we hold in common, and in doing so, we see more quickly a slice of their humanity – a slice of our own common humanity.
Long ago when I was baptized, my two older sisters, acting as my godmothers, made a promise to God and our community at the Episcopal cathedral in Tampa, and they made it on my behalf. The promised, with God’s help, to respect the dignity of every human being. I have since renewed this vow countless times, in addition to taking other, and one might imagine, more rigorous, demanding, and challenging vows. But I don’t think that’s so, now. I think that respecting the dignity of every human being is just about as challenging and all-encompassing as we can get in this world, in this age.
For a variety of reasons, we don’t respect the common human dignity that we share with everyone else on this planet. If we did, greed, violence, and hatred wouldn’t be an issue, would they? We might disagree with people, but if that were the case, we could never resort to hating them, to violence against them, not if we really respected them as human beings. And it strikes me that as much fear as there has been about predatory behavior on the internet, and how some people go a little nuts when they find they can be anonymous and say hurtful things, that on the whole what I have experienced on the internet has been something very, very different. I, as a young, successful, intelligent person with friends and loved ones around me in the world offline, have found online a mesh of the people I know also offline, and people I would never have connected to, but have, through common interests. We become friends first, and then I find out that they are a history professor, or a rural housewife, or a grandmother on welfare, or an artist in on the other side of the globe, or a marine biologist just north of the border, or a junior in high school. All the labels that might have kept us apart, black, white, poor, rich, educated, unschooled… they don’t. And it’s beautiful.
Perhaps if we become citizens of a global village, it will bother us more when that village gets bombed, when it’s citizens start getting murdered because of random city or gang violence, or because someone in a military uniform shot them dead. Perhaps it will bother us more when we see each other dropping like flies. Perhaps, instead of responding with further anger, we’ll decide to respond with compassion instead. Perhaps that is the true gift that the internet has given us, right up there with Google and Wikipedia. The gift of knowing one another, of being able to recognize our common humanity first instead of last, if at all.
Still. I have a 3×5 card file on my desk, and it contains sites and passwords, for if I die before the Internet is quite ready to deal with it. Just so you know.
EDIT: This was added later, taken from a private message that I wrote, but wished to share the sentiment, here.
I have often thought that getting to know someone online was a delightfully backwards process where we begin with what really matters – the things we have in common, the things we cherish, the things we hold sacred. We connect on that level, and then everything else, all of the things that the world says are important, that follows afterwards, if at all. It is a little cumbersome in moments like this, because I, like so many probably, are realizing that we’re crying and grieving over someone, someone with whom we shared something deep, and yet, we never knew their name, or their age, or where they lived, or if they were happy, if they were surrounded by people they loved, or plagued by loneliness, if they had a difficult or privileged life. And you know, that’s okay. We don’t actually need to know. It is only that the formalities and conventions that have evolved over the course of human history – being able to gather in groups to grieve, being able to say a formal goodbye, being able to see and know that the body or remains of the one we loved are now laid to rest, being shepherded through the process by a professional who knows exactly what to say to bring comfort and enlightenment without being trite, mushy, or patronizing.
Some say the religious rites are there arbitrarily and we simply jump through their hoops, but the more I experience, the more I believe that the religious rites are there because we desperately need to mark the milestones of our lives in some meaningful, communal way. But there is a gap between the online and the offline here that has no bridge across it, unless perhaps we can count the anglican cathedral in second life – ah, but not everyone uses second life. I don’t know what I’m advocating for – a guild to chaplains to the Internet, perhaps, perhaps not. But whatever it is, it doesn’t yet exist. Religion, no one is surprised to find out, has not kept up with the times.