The Insufficiency of Shared Humanity

Why we can’t let all of our shared experiences feel the same.

Too much will be written about Paris again—it probably already has—so if another 800 or so words by somebody who has no business commenting on the tragedy will just make you angry, I encourage you to move on now. Really, I don’t mind.

But I can’t not write, because when you’re moved you should do something about it, and I’m moved to write.

So with that out of the way…


At 6:09PM EST last night, the credits rolled for the 27th time as Shia LeBouf bowed his head in the darkness, got up from his seat and walked out onto Houston Street. A bearded guy gave him the universal “That’s it?” motion. An opportunistic hand gave a thumbs-up to the rolling camera. Then everyone realized that if they didn’t get up and move that instant they might not get to take a selfie with him before he left, and began to rush out of the theater, rolling camera forgotten. The magic was over, the reverie broken.

Thumbs-up, indeed.

Alyssa M thought it was great (and worth tagging Shia for of course!). Weirdly, I have to say I agree.

Maybe I’m losing some of my cynicism as a move through my 30s, but in the last year or two I’ve had a growing admiration for the people in our world who are willing to do something that creates a unique experience for a bunch of other people.

Shia, Kanye, Wes Anderson, Jonathan Harris—you can question their motives, their aesthetic or their output, but you have to respect their willingness to put themselves out there in a way that people can respond to.

By doing that, they expose themselves to ridicule, humiliation, spectacular failure or worse, unspectacular failure. That requires bravery, vision and conviction, and I for one respect it immensely and am inspired to develop this discipline in myself as well.

Why?

Because they create spaces where we can all share an experience together, and nothing makes us feel more human than that.


At around 8:30 PM local time, a bomb went off at the Stade de France. Patrice Evra, left back for the French national soccer team, stopped the ball for a second, turned and passed it back to his defender and put his hands out as if to say “Now what?”

I wasn’t sure if this was the first thing that happened—turns out it was—but it was the first thing I saw because I spend more time following soccer than world events. Maybe that’s a problem, I don’t know.

Over the next couple of hours, I and pretty much everyone else in the western world watched the events in Paris unfold together, horrified. The most heart-wrenching stories were the most immediate, the most individual. Hostages tweeted out from inside the concert hall, begging for intervention. Friends in France, were they safe? Eagles of Death Metal, do they know where their crew is? The death toll rose. I tapped Follow in Twitter Moments to keep up with everything.

“Now what,” indeed.

Facebook pushed out a feature that allowed people to tag that they were safe. I couldn’t decide if it was altruistic or profoundly cynical to have such a feature ready to go at a moment’s notice. My Instagram feed filled up with the Eiffel Tower in the shape of a peace sign. The outpouring and the backlash intertwined.

There’s something wrong with people who’s first thought after a tragedy is to open photoshop and make a graphic to post online. #gross
- @somebodydoesntreallymatterwho

I thought about the tower image, about @jean_jullien going viral. It was good, right? It had to be good. What else could we all really do, but demonstrate that we’re in this together? That we stand as one, that we recognize and celebrate our shared humanity?

It didn’t matter that something as simple as a regram could make us all feel like we had done all we could, right? It didn’t matter that all of this effort and care and empathy and thought and concern was pouring out into the tubes of the internet and not onto the streets of the 11th Arrondissement, right?

It had to be good. It was good. It is good.

And yet for some reason, it didn’t sit right. There was a disconnect I just couldn’t shake.


At 4:07 AM Eastern this morning, Andy Crouch re-posted an essay about the Newtown shootings in light of last night. It’s wonderfully insightful on the role of presence in shared grief and how that role is so difficult in our digital age, and it describes how the proper response in a situation like Paris is silent presence. It also describes with cutting accuracy how silent presence isn’t an option in our current media landscape. If you’re not sharing, you’re not present.

And so we talk. We talk and talk. We post and share and retweet and backlash and bicker and argue.

And we capture that talk, we capture that sharing. We collect and we curate, we eulogize and interpret. We sit in front of our screens and our feeds and our vertical videos and we follow along and try to understand. In doing so, we end up treating all of our shared experiences the same way.

#AllMyMovies and #PrayForParis are not the same thing.

Both are humanizing, but in no twisted universe should those ever be the same thing. Yet we consume them in an alarmingly similar fashion. If we are consuming them in a similar way, are we experiencing them in a similar way?

We should not experience them in the same way. If we are starting to, that should make us extremely uncomfortable.

So as we consume the next awards show or the next shooting, the next Super Bowl or the next natural disaster—even writing those pairs is uncomfortable—let’s be aware of that discomfort. Let’s welcome that discomfort. Let’s fan the flames of that discomfort. And if that discomfort moves us, let’s do something about it besides simply sharing the experience with each other.

Because if we ever lose that discomfort, I fear we’ll have lost something much greater: our humanity.