Thursday, August 14, 2014
Depending on when you read this essay, it will seem either wildly out-of-date or strangely apropos. I can't really predict which right now. There are two things which I do know, though:
1.) As I sit down now to write this, the news of Robin Williams's unfortunate passing is blowing up the internet.
2.) At some point, whether in a few weeks or a few months, another celebrity will die and trigger a similar response. So what I say now may seem meaningful again.
As a general rule, I don't comment on social media regarding the death of celebrities. It strikes me as a bit unseemly. It's a bit like making the death of somebody's loved one all about you. And there's no real good way to do it. Even as I write this essay, I feel like I'm navigating a minefield in attempting to be sensitive, rational, and forthright all at once. In fact, why don't I just break my conflicting emotions into those categories?
1.) Sensitive - Robin Williams was a beloved entertainer. People always say "beloved entertainer" when somebody dies, but, no, seriously, this dude was loved by millions. By all measures he was a wildly influential comic genius. He affected the lives of audiences all over the globe, and in his acting and comedy complete strangers felt a personal connection with him. But not only is the average person feeling blue by the loss of an artist they admired, this man was a father, a friend, and a family member to many people, and by all estimations, a stupendous person all around.
2.) Rational - As I sit here thinking about, and even taking the time to write about, a comedian, millions of children around the world are dying of starvation and hunger. That's if they're lucky, and they're not working as slave labor to produce the goods I don't like to pay much for, or being sold into sexual slavery by human trafficking rings. The brainwashed population of North Korea lives in a state of constant bondage, the people of northern Iraq and Syria are now ruled by a cabal of insanely violent sociopaths, and in sub-Saharan Africa an outbreak of Ebola is raging, you know, alongside the long-running AIDS epidemic. Countless people suffer and die every day without a drop of ink being spilled over them, and yet most of the industrialized world is now currently focused on the death of a famous, wealthy man who led a fairly comfortable life.
3.) Forthright - I didn't know Robin Williams. I haven't seen or thought about one of his movies in years. Most people didn't know him. There's a bit of a self-serving streak to mentioning his death online. There's a bit of simply wanting to be part of the conversation, if not outright self-centeredness. Does anybody really care what I thought about Robin Williams? Or is it just important that I comment on his death, and use it to portray myself as a certain kind of person (whether I want to be seen as empathetic, rebellious, concerned about mental illness, or otherwise.) Is everyone simply capitalizing on a death to continue to push that avatar version of themselves that everyone sees online?
As I said, it's this admixture of competing impulses that usually forces me to stay out of the fray altogether. I don't wish to be a complete ass by belittling someone's untimely death. Neither do I wish to be ignorant about the importance of a single death in the greater scheme of things. Nor do I wish to be a phony by portraying myself as some kind of martyr who is suffering the most from all this. So, typically I just bow out.
This time I didn't though. I had a memory last night that struck me out of the blue. When I was stationed in Iraq, Robin Williams came to do a USO tour. I hadn't thought about it in years. In fact, I hadn't even noted it down in my war journal, which is otherwise pretty comprehensive. I actually had a personal memory to share, so I reached out and I mentioned this on Facebook. Just that. “Hey, you know, I saw Robin Williams once in Iraq.”
It got me to thinking about the way we respond to death. Stalin famously (but probably not really) said, "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." Callous, and yet, weirdly true. We hear about floods and tornadoes and think, "Gosh, what a shame." But when a person you know dies, you cry or become despondent. Or at least re-evaluate your life.
I'm not sure that's changed over time. There's something odd about famous people, that we feel that we know them. Sure, it’s a one-way street, but we still feel we knew them. Supposedly when FDR died people cried at the news, even his political opponents, because he had just been president so damn long. I don't remember Marilyn Monroe's passing, but it sounds like that was greeted similarly to Princess Diana's, which I DO remember, in an outpouring of sympathy. (And, no doubt, derision on the periphery, too.)
Today, in 2014, with social media, what's different is that we can potentially show off what we think when someone dies. And I think it still tends to fall into one of the three categories I outlines above.
1.) Sensitive – This seems to be the general consensus. People share simple memories, maybe lines from favorite movies, perhaps bemoan the scourge of depression that made Robin Williams take his own life, and thoughts for his friends and family.
2.) Rational – I’ve been seeing this reaction starting to creep in to social media lately. It may be rational, even reasonable, but it sure comes off as jerky. It’s a whole lot of, “Hey, why are you worried about this guy, you didn’t know him?” Or an attempt to tell the most tasteless joke about a dead person as soon as possible. This could represent a genuine disdain for death, which can be healthy considering that we’re all mortal, or it could also be an attempt to use gallows humor or outrage to distance yourself from a sad emotion.
3.) Forthright – I’d like to think this is what I ended up doing by mentioning that I saw Robin in Iraq. Sort of an acknowledgement that social media is a bit phony, and yet artists can and do have a real impact on our lives, and maybe there’s a nice middle ground where we don’t have to tear our clothes but neither do we have to look down on others from our ivory towers for doing so.
But who knows? How we react to death says a lot about us as people, I suppose. My latest book, BILLY AND THE CLONESAURUS, (you didn’t think you were going to get through this whole essay without a plug, did you?) is about how people react to death. I guess you could argue that ALL of my fiction is about how people react to death.
In BILLY specifically, the world is populated entirely by identical clones who are all killed on their first birthday. They mostly go to die willingly, unthinkingly, because a year is too short a time to worry about mortality.
So I threw a wrench into the scheme. What if one clone lived past his first birthday? What if he faced death, survived it, and went on living? How would his view of the world change? And now I suddenly find myself feeling dirty for using a man’s death to sell my own book. But I guess we’re never really done re-evaluating our relationship with the great unknown.
Posted by Midnyte Reader at 1:00 PM