We Can All Care Less

This weekend, I accepted an invite to go to a party in honor of a woman who died at age 92. I knew I had an uncle out here, but not several distant relatives — so distant I’d never heard of them. But out of curiosity, I joined my uncle at the party. It was, it turned out, a low key memorial with speeches and songs. Going to a stranger’s memorial service sounds like the weirdest way to spend a Saturday, but it was beautiful. For an hour and a half, I sat on the periphery of a community (the Model T Club in the San Fernando Valley, to be exact) and heard stories and tributes that felt like they came out of another era. Two men sang the most heartfelt rendition of Home on the Range that I didn’t think was possible, more than one person was wearing overalls, and the whole thing was maybe the most uncool thing I’ve ever witnessed.

When I told people where I was going that afternoon, I felt like I should present it as an obligation — it was an awkward situation to walk into, and seemed like the kind of thing I shouldn’t be doing voluntarily. But I was. It was an experience that would have been so easy to avoid having: distant relatives, a roomful of elderly strangers, the far suburbs. I guess for lack of any real family obligations, I am creating my own. But also, there was something appealing, something primal about feeling completely out of my element.

I watched this beautiful TED Talk this morning. It asserts that technology has fundamentally changed our psychology, that we are using superficial connection as a substitution for genuine connection, that we’re able to censor our way out of real time communication, out of vulnerability, out of intimacy. And, my favorite, that “we all really need to listen to each other, including to the boring bits. Because it’s when we stumble or hesitate or lose our words that we reveal ourselves to each other.”

I think about this all the time. I think about the stories we tell, and the stories we used to tell. Most Seinfeld episodes wouldn’t happen today, and even making arrangements to meet friends at the movies is no longer the act of good faith that it used to be. We have minimized these tiny stakes, never mind Antigone and Haemon killing themselves over a miscommunication, or Romeo and Juliet drinking poison. It’s said that Shakespeare lacks subtext. But maybe subtext is just a luxury that we have, to make things even more complicated when we have eliminated a hundred other kinds of communication breakdowns. We are terrified to say what we mean, and aren’t we lucky — we don’t have to.

It is true that if we keep our distance, we can keep all our relationships cleaner. Where we maybe all used to be on the same large planet, now we are all tiny, individual planets orbiting around each other, occasionally getting close enough to make contact. Because we’re close enough to yell out to each other, we assume we’re inhabiting the same space.

South Korea apparently has Death Schools, where people go to experience a mock death in order to appreciate life. While the fixation with witnessing our own funerals dates back at least to Tom Sawyer, the idea of curating the experience is distinctly modern. To combat rising suicide rates, the cure is to manufacture higher stakes. We have figured out how not to feel, and now we have to turn it around or we might all die. This somehow makes sense to me — I have six tabs open in this browser, and the moment I’m left alone in a public place, I compulsively reach for my phone. Because what if I felt exposed or lonely in public? What would happen then?

One of the only sermons I remember from my Catholic grade school experience — before people besides my dad had cell phones — was when a priest expressed his feelings about people checking their watches during mass. He felt that keeping track of the passage of time, that being aware of the outside world, was disrespectful to what mass was supposed to represent. He wanted his parish to be present. I’m not religious, but I find myself thinking of this sermon in other contexts, in places where I feel like I should respect the environment. While watching movies and plays, mostly. Or at dinner (well, I try). I was better at reading when I was ten than I am today, and I know it’s because I’m shifting my focus every ten seconds — my brain is always somewhere else.

I work at a reception desk, mostly transferring calls and doing “things that a robot could do.” But today, an older man called asking for our fax number. I rattled off the first three digits of the number, but when he repeated them back to me, he talked much slower. I instinctively slowed down my speech, and afterwards he remarked, “I’m an old guy, you went at just the right speed.” Even if I assume no one notices, the difference between interacting with a human and a machine is significant. Paradoxically, I always text instead of call, and going into the bank to talk to the teller feels like a herculean feat. We all want to do what’s easier, even if it’s bad for us.

I’m growing increasingly conscious of how, even as a writer, social media feels like shouting into the void. I am not seeking connection (or at least I’m not getting it), merely confirmation that I exist. Writing this is somehow less scary than reaching out to people individually to let them know that I care, that I appreciate them, that I need them. As a move to combat this, I recently started texting people “unsolicited compliments.” Somehow, though, I’ve only gathered the courage to do this with faraway friends, the ones I don’t see all the time.

But why is it such an act of courage? Lots of criticisms of “tinder culture” talk about how we’ve all become so expendable to each other. I’m not sure it’s true, but I believe we all want to appear expendable to each other. If the American Dream used to be to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” now it’s to always be the one who cares less. That economic freedom and emotional freedom is the ultimate cocktail. Self-sufficiency from all sides.

I have written shades of this piece a million times. I get 3/4 through it and stop — it sounds trite, and I know I’m making sweeping generalizations. And anyway, I embrace all these conveniences, don’t I? Calling to order a pizza is archaic and terrifying. But then, Death School is also terrifying. This is ultimately just another wisp of a think piece that will maybe, hopefully, make somebody say “yes!” and feel less alone for a moment. I will hopefully feel the same when somebody says they liked it. And I will sort of pretend that this was an act of vulnerability, but it wasn’t. Not as much as attending a stranger’s memorial for no good reason. Not as much as turning off my phone while I wait to meet someone at a bar.

If Shakespeare was alive today, he’d have no idea what to write about.

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