At What Cost

I was on the ferry from Woods Hole to Martha's Vineyard a few weeks ago and I noticed a group of women laughing and taking photos of themselves. They were having a good time, clearly, and after all the photo-taking there was loud talk about posting. Because I am a curmudgeon and hardwired to think critically about everything, I found myself waxing nostalgic for the days when a "post" was part of a fencing system. When posting was something I did on a horse. When Post was a person who had cornered the market on good manners.

"We are surrounded by the beautiful sea," I muttered inside my head, "on an amazing boat, leaving the mainland and heading to an island. How is it possible that all those women care about is photos of themselves and whether and when to post them?"

I'm crabby that way, as many of you know.

While we were on Martha's Vineyard, Coco and I spent time with one of my favorite families: the Simpkinses. Is that the plural of Simpkins? If it is I love them even more. Polly and her father, Bill, and Brad, the fabulous dad, and joy of all joy, both of the boys were home: Justin and Finn.

On the morning we were leaving we had breakfast with Polly and Justin. You need only go this far to see who and what Justin Simpkins is. He is amazing, engaged, alive, present. He is grateful, funny, kind and wise. We talked that morning about high school and college and kids these days. Kids These Days, a favorite topic. Justin told us a story about a group of students from a prestigious university, Ivy-leaguers, who had come to visit Watson in Colorado. "They were all miserable," he said. "They said that all they do is study and go see their psychiatrist. They were all depressed."

Sigh. The Ivy Beleaguereds.

It's not just the smart kids who are lost, though. A lot of young people today are having a lot of trouble finding where their feet meet the ground in this world.

What's going on, I wondered, that we are filling our kids with so much sorrow and medication? I have heard countless stories of young people, riddled with anxiety and depression; burnt-out and grappling with far too many of the mental disorders I have to read about for my classes in pastoral care and counseling. 

Why? Why all the suffering so early in life?

What I really came to write about this morning is my perennial wrestling match with social media. I didn't mean to veer off into a conversation about our youth and their struggles. Still, I can't help but wonder how and where the lines of connection are drawn, from the world we have created and perpetuated, filled with platforms for self-promotion, to the dawning of generations of humans riddled with depression, anxiety and substance abuse issues, eating disorders and attention problems. 

This is far too great a question to grapple with here. But I think that there is something we need to think about very carefully, us humans, as one of the roads back to ourselves: community. Each other. In real life, real time. I believe that this is how we begin to recoup the humanity that is seeping out of our life experience the farther down the social media/technology rabbit hole we go.

I have noticed stories lately of people using Facebook as a means to publicize their criminal acts. I can't bear to look more closely, but I believe what is happening is that people are killing each other and themselves and posting the videos to Facebook. 

That, to me, sounds like a tipping point.

I spend a fair amount of time with people who are dying, so I know that one of the most profound fears of the dying is not about the pain. People are not worried that dying is going to hurt. They are worried that after they die they will be forgotten. That their life mattered so little that the fact of their existence will disappear when they are no longer here in body. 

Was it a life well-lived? Was there love? Kindness? Connection? Did I use this one and only life to make a difference while I had it? 

I urge you to think about this as you move through your own days. I urge all of us to ask the kinds of questions that require us to look carefully at the ways in which we spend our hours. It's a good exercise to imagine, from time to time, yourself in the final day or hours of your life. What might you wish you had done differently? I can't help but think that at least one of those women on the boat might, given the chance, wish that she had leaned over the boat's side and taken in the smells and sights of the sea. The magic of a boat skimming the water and transporting us all to a beautiful island. The formations of the clouds and the sounds of the gulls. The chowder on the island ferry is pretty damn great, too. All of it. 

The ocean will seep into your bones and calm your frazzled nerves. The gentle motion of a boat can rock you into a peaceful state. The uninterrupted company of your friends will create memories that will carry you through your harder days.

Are we so in need of validation that we are willing to trade actual living in pursuit of posts and likes? At what cost? At what cost to our very souls, desperately seeking human connection and deeper living?

In George Saunders' book, Lincoln in the Bardo, the dead, just before they are transported from the bardo to the next realm, are given an opportunity not only to review the life they lived, but to see the future they missed, all of the things they didn't have the opportunity to do or become, to smell, to see, to touch, to experience.

Among the things one of the dead characters says he will miss:

"Someone's kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing you are not at all at ease. 

Geese above, clover below, the sound of one's own breath when winded. The way a moistness in the eye will blur a field of stars; the sore place on the shoulder a resting toboggan makes; writing one's beloved's name upon a frosted window with a gloved finger.

Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling there will always be a day ahead.

Loon-call in the dark; calf-cramp in the spring; neck rub in the parlor; milk sip at end of day.

Toweling off one's clinging shirt, post-June rain."

Food for thought, all of it. Eat up, live. Amen.