Figuring out how to cope with a terminal illness and deal with death has been the most present theme for me over the past week. My students and I spent a couple of days discussing these topics in our Medical and Healthcare Ethics class. After a colleague mentioned in passing that his health was “not that great,” we spoke for nearly two hours over coffee about finding purpose in doing graduate work when you are faced with an unexpected and drastically shortened timeline. And, although this is a frequent occurrence, one of my closest friends and I talked even more than usual about what it means to live after a loved one has died. All of these conversations were punctuated by seemingly serendipitous finds of related videos and songs over a number of days. It was one of those times when one’s attention is primed to pick up on such things more frequently and with greater ease. It seemed natural, then, to assume that I would write my reflections this week on such a weighty, important, and pressing question: How do we live when we really know that we are going to die?
But I’m not going to. At least not right now.
Maybe it was because I really do want to write about this question and these experiences, and perhaps also because I appreciate the gravity that can surround their consideration, that I found myself feeling quite adverse to the idea of doing so. From my own experience, I know that it is inappropriate (if not downright offensive) to talk to people about what they might be going through and how they should handle their feelings. In those situations, the most important thing one can do is just be present, sit with the experience, and listen. So I had a weird little moment when I thought, “Ugh. I don’t want to come off as that person.” And I totally blame Twitter and Facebook for my hesitation to write.
It may be difficult to comprehend why many of us compulsively check our Facebook news feed while simultaneously cursing the overwhelmingly inane, pointlessness of it all. We ask, “Why do you think anyone wants to know that you are finally going to bed/can’t sleep/are making casserole and green beans for dinner/are on your third latte/are feeling accomplished after studying for one hour?” Worse is when the “friends” you haven’t talked to in more than five years post their inflammatory and ignorant political views and then your other “friends” think they’re being snarky by posting, “Everyone get off of your soapbox and go back to posting pictures of your food.” The point is that we already know that Facebook is often little more than a narcissist’s dream cove of self-indulgent babble, and that’s why it can be great to use the news feed “filter” function (….or to have more interesting friends).
In light of the frequently pathetic state of my Facebook news feed, my Twitter account is more selective and has aimed to serve a different purpose. To have instant access to interesting articles I’ve chosen to follow, for the most part, news media sources. With the start of this blog and the goal of finding ways to use Twitter more effectively for my own purposes, I also follow a number of motivational, inspirational, life-coachy sorts of public figures. Forget my friends who post Facebook statuses that solicit takers for a vacuum bag three-pack or who feel compelled to exclaim to the world that their earl grey tea is so great, the this-is-so-important-it-will-undoubtedly-change-your-life folks were the ones who got to me today.
As I scrolled through my list of updated tweets I saw many less-than-140-character notices that baited, “Read what I have to say about overcoming addiction;” “Find out how to bolster your own creativity;” “Listen to me talk about how to get ‘unstuck’ in your life;” “Look at what I have to say about everything!” It left me feeling bothered. I have to admit that a large part of that bother arose from my own awareness of the fact that I, too, could potentially come off as that person. Ugh.
This is a tension that I’ve struggled with for a very long time. I mean, I’ve studied philosophy for years and the majority of philosophical work functions on the attitudinal premise of “I know something very important that other people do not yet understand so let me write about it in ways that demonstrate my intellectual prowess.” In a way that is not at all unrelated to my philosophical work, I’ve been blogging now for a few years about life, relationships, and how to use philosophy to think about things in new and empowering ways. I also made a series of Youtube videos for a while that presented arguments that were intended for general internet-based audiences. (I took a hiatus from the latter project to write my dissertation but also because I got frustrated by how it mostly consisted in me talking to a camera alone in my bedroom, which suddenly felt very isolated and self-indulgent.)
It would be a lie to say that I don’t hope, wish, and aspire to offer content that is good for others to read, watch, and hear. In fact, I’m hoping to make a career out of producing quality material of this sort in the very near future. But at the same time, I don’t want a certain kind of broadcasting on social media to be all that I do because, I think, something much more has to be present in order to produce thoughtful, engaging material well. One has to be able to listen, to openly participate in a genuine exchange. Of course, social media can be very useful for many things – from sparking social movements to posting cat pictures to efficiently notifying all of your friends and family (or even your soon-to-be-ex) that you are “no longer listed as in a relationship.” However, fostering a certain capacity for listening isn’t exactly one of its strong suits.
At the beginning of my week-long reflective immersion on questions of life and death, I received a text from another dear friend asking for my thoughts on humility, if it’s necessary, and, if so, what that means for people who are in the business of offering advice, sharing insights, imparting wisdom, increasing understanding, or producing knowledge with some degree of authority. We both seemed bothered by the idea that 1) one could presume to know “x” in a way that 2) others would want to, need to, or be expected to pay for access to this knowledge. On some level, the trouble arises at the thought of getting paid for such services, but teachers need to eat, therapists have to pay their bills, and even ministers get paid. But we don’t consider all teachers, therapists, and ministers crooks or sell outs. So maybe it’s not so much the selling of one’s services that is the issue, especially if the services one provides are helpful and beneficial to others.The bigger problem, it seems to me, is the presumption behind the service.
Claiming to have The Answer. Purporting to know The Truth. Offering a clear path on The Way to Happiness and Fulfillment. If not totally delusional, at the very least these bold pronouncements seem insincere. Even worse is how such “services” are often directed at a target market that actually, really needs help, advice, support, and some sense of greater understanding, thereby inching the “service” closer and closer to being borderline exploitative. So the new question for this week is: How can one offer thoughts, insights, advice, and ideas that one deems helpful and meaningful for others online without devolving into the status of an insincere, self-obsessed social media whore?
I think that part of the answer to this question would have to recognize the need to always frame one’s actions with a hearty dose of humility. In other words, one has to acknowledge and admit that they don’t have the answers to everything. Being able to work, write, and post in this humble vein is also related to maintaining a sense of integrity, which could evidence itself as a willingness to stay open to what others have to offer. It could also manifest in the desire to stay quiet, to not write or post or immediately respond. In other words, perhaps the most humble way to offer one’s own ideas and insights with a sense of integrity is to first find ways to listen.
I’m not yet entirely sure about how to listen through social media. It’s a weird idea, I know, but if there are ways to do it, I hope to get better at it. In the meantime, I still intend to continue talking, blogging, and perhaps even getting back into posting videos about big ideas, important questions, and weighty themes. Maybe it’s a cop out, but I think part of me hopes that acknowledging the shortcomings, trappings, and difficulties wrapped up in sharing on these forums will serve as sufficient recognition of the fact that working/thinking/writing/sharing/connecting in these ways can be good but it is not enough. Engaging online somehow always feels inadequate and incomplete. Thus, although I love doing this and I will keep doing it, it’s not all that I do or all that I want to do in the future. It never has been. We need more complex human interactions to actually address the really important stuff of our lives in powerful, meaningful ways. We need to find ways to really be present with one another. For now, then, I’m just going to have to sit with it.
Here is a video from many moons ago that captures some of my frustration with using social media to do philosophy. Perhaps the irony of my attempt to use social media to find better ways to meaningfully engage with others via social media displaces the unavoidable inadequacy of this video. Perhaps not.