Reflections on Loss, Guilt and 2010s Culture

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My brother Muni’s belongings on display at his August 2019 memorial service.

My Emmy Award-winning brother dreamed of a life in the movies, but it was his first cousin who was depicted in 2010’s “The Social Network” for his role in starting Facebook.

My YouTube-creator brother dreamed of likes, retweets and subscriptions, but it was his elder brother — this writer — who spent the better part of the 2010s building a “following” while evangelizing Twitter across Asia and the Middle East.

My proud-New-Yorker brother, with degrees from three different city universities, dreamed of documenting and representing all-things NYC, but didn’t get his break even as the city itself raced ahead to become a new center for start-ups in the 2010s.

After spending a decade experiencing the rise of a culture in which “greatness,” or everyone’s performance of greatness, seemed to be everywhere — everywhere but within him, he came to believe — rejection, depression and addiction ultimately overwhelmed my younger brother, Muni Jaitly; he died this past summer — alone, abroad, and anguished.

What am I to make of his illness, my own guilt and our culpable culture?

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Muni visiting India, 2009.

A starting point might be ten years ago when I left my Internet-evangelizing job at Google and moved to Detroit to build a non-profit organization, Michigan Corps, founded on the idea that social media fuels positive, social change. Duh; right?

In the ensuing ten years, I had a front-row seat, across more vantage points and places than I could have imagined, as social media — and, critically, our collective embrace of it — ushered in new ways for billions to self-identify, freely express and civically engage — as publishers, sure, but also as performers.

In fact, I wasn’t just in the front row seat; as an entrepreneur in Detroit, a philanthropist at Knight Foundation and ultimately a Vice President at Twitter stationed across Asia, I was often on stage, with founders and friends, product managers and presidents, making the case for affirmatively embracing this shiny new Age of Self. “Look no further than the Arab Spring,” I’d say.

But more than an actor, I became a part of the problem, too: I indulged in publicly hyping my own unproven ideas, thought more about my brand than my being, and found myself passively observing, even critiquing, members of my own family — from a cold distance measured in more than miles. I didn’t merely lionize politicians, as part of this past decade’s affinity for personalities-of-cult. I lionized myself.

Was I trying to do something? Or was I trying to be someone?

By sharing and engaging, was I giving of myself? Or was I — in fact — taking, objectifying and expecting from others?

While cultivating this 2010s brand, did I worry about who couldn’t keep up, who I might be misleading and, worst, hurting?

Ten years later, the collateral damage from the decade includes not just falling national life expectancy, an accelerating mental health crisis, and unabating my-team-versus-your-team political rivalries. It includes Muni, too.

Of course, it wasn’t merely this decade’s unique forces, and my role in them, that swept my brother away. Memories of my closeness with and care for Muni these last years sit next to my culpability. And other elements of nature and nurture loom large in his story, too.

But long before my career, Muni and I, the children of immigrants, grew up surrounded by harbingers of this coming Age of Self. And it’s just that I found — and performed — my way through our shared 2010s dreams in technology, media and community and, tragically, he couldn’t. I can’t shake this truth and so must wave that flag here.

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My brother and I in the late 2000s.

Well before platforms like Facebook, we succumbed to the difficulty-and-dopamine of fitting into Manhattan and Greenwich society. The allure was real, but feelings of adequacy were fleeting. When Facebook was founded — in part by members of our own family and acquaintances, no less — Muni’s sense of enamor, and entanglement, with this new Age of Self heightened dramatically. He said as much to me. That billions around the world began to use this platform, and others, to self-broadcast their self-worth only accelerated his compulsion to be, and project, great.

And that Hollywood had captured it all, and people he had known well, in “The Social Network” validated his sense that earnest work and goodness — hidden from “public” view and lacking the shine of technology, media and big cities — was an insufficient route to fulfillment.

The change within Muni this decade, beginning 2010, was palpable. And fatal.

A “great man” recognized — or bust, he felt.

One crowded, homogenous, digital highway to gilded success, Muni came to believe — instead of many, quiet, solitary back roads to simple joys.

Of course, the emergence of game-show-like political culture dominated by larger-than-life, performant politicians only reinforced, in his mind, this decade’s and culture’s new playbook. (Take this April 2007 Democratic presidential debate as an example; it reflects the relative lack of candidate hubris just three election cycles ago).

That Muni’s own brother — this writer — spent years propagating, and living in the midst of, this newly-self-absorbed, play-the-part culture must have caused his heart to race, and then ache. It was all too much.

His sudden death this year shattered my sense of self, and most especially the “change-the-world” way I’d peddled much of my career this decade. What business did I have changing the world if I couldn’t serve my own family? If our culture could take someone like him down — he and his achievements forever frozen at age 35 — who else might fall?

Yes, to be sure, Muni had agency and made his own regrettable choices, too, particularly as his depression, illness and addiction progressed. And he’s not alone in succumbing to this decade’s pressures. But while alcohol seized him, how many more autopsy reports might read, in part, “Cause of Death: Culture.”

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In 1840, Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle began to deliver a series of lectures, which would later be published as “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History.” His ideas would ultimately constitute the “Great Man Theory,” the idea that history can largely be explained by the impact of great men or heroes whose supremacy shapes, and saves, the world. The rest of us be damned; it’s these great ones we must see — and be.

Yes, all of us have treasures deep within us, as Paulo Coehlo so beautifully puts it in “The Alchemist.” Yes, we must, with urgency, find these treasures and, together, create the conditions in which all of our potential unlocks. And, yes, the self-expression of these treasures is a part of the self-discovery process. Indeed, this is the majesty of the American experiment.

But in America, where does the warm, humility of self-discovery end and the cold, hubris of self-indulgence begin? Where does goodness exuded end and greatness performed begin? Where does the joy of long, shared walks end and the curse of fitting in for the race begin?

I don’t have hard answers, for my parents, for product managers or for policy makers. Or for my brother, when I see him in my dreams; a lucky-thirteen months younger than me, in death he’s become my missing fraternal twin, more similar in soul than we were ever able to acknowledge during his life.

What I do know, though, is that We the People, and not some distant protagonist in government, tech or media, are the ultimate shapers of our own culture. And that both politics and the entirety of the human experience flow downstream from culture and the stories we tell ourselves, en masse and privately, and not the other way around.

As my friend, and fellow co-designer of the BMe Community of Black Men Trabian Shorters puts it, “We live into the stories we tell ourselves.”

It’s the culture, stupid.

And it’s time we tell ourselves, and one another, a different American story: a story about goodness, shared in the third person, and not a story about greatness, told in the first person.

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Muni at Gillette Stadium near Boston while with CBS Sports in the early 2000s.

In recent years, I’ve tried to salvage my decade. Advancing my mission by creating new value, yes, but without many of the faux frills our culture demands, frills I’d grown accustomed to fashioning for much of the 2010s. I still race and keep up with our culture’s theater, yes, but I try to avoid the constant reading of tired, self-indulgent scripts from the stages of social media and real life. Easier said than done, to be sure, and I’m not always getting it right (e.g. the irony of this self-published piece and it’s accompanying social media push).

But of late, I’ve started to worry, who else might I hurt, with insecurity, anxiety and more, by joining a quintessentially-2010s trend anchored in hyping… me, me and me?

How many more storms might I instigate by, as Bono puts it, chasing every breaking wave, especially dangerous waves that self-perpetuate… self?

Tragically, my brother never noticed my change and it was too late to save his life; bearing such direct witness to, and performing for, the straight jacket of this updated, perform-or-perish 2010s American dream overwhelmed him.

Truth be told, in this next decade, my guilt will endure, quietly and gravely. But I hope we as a people don’t wait idly for solutions from some institutional “other” — and instead insist, as individuals, to ourselves be the change our culture needs.

Maybe that was Muni’s dream after all.

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Muni Jaitly, 1984–2019, munijaitly.org.

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