Dying On Faceboook
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Digital Night
Aging is a miserable process, even under optimum circumstances. Optimum might be Pablo Picasso on Mallorca, painting in the golden sun and surrounded by his loving wives and mistresses, or Albert Einstein, still sorting out the mechanics of the universe when others his age had gone to pasture, but even here, the ineluctable entropy of physical and mental capacities sooner or later kneecaps you, and you’re drawn by gravity closer to the dust. You can talk to me of the joy of grandchildren (yes, true enough), the comfort of retirement (true for some, I suppose, though the prospect of doing nothing holds nothing for me), or even of the Jungian notion that old age is the only time in life when we are truly free to knit our gathered wisdom into a quilt of meaning, but none of these things can make less disturbing the lumpiness and sag of our of once chiseled faces. We are vain creatures, most of us, and no amount of Bhakti yoga, therapy, Juviderm, or surgical intervention can restore the person we believed we were at that magical age of 28. I have a friend and colleague who at sixty has embarked on a somewhat chimeric pursuit via plastic surgery to recover some of what has been lost in his face’s musculature. Even for him, this dive into the fountain of youth will end at the bottom of a well.
And now, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk, and to our desperate urge for community, belonging, recognition, and validation, we are chronicling our own passage to the tomb in the glare of social media, where we all become Norma Desmond if we stick around long enough. The wiser among us ankle off the stage, cane in hand, long before the lights go down, or do a slow fade, hiding from the light like Blanche DuBois, eventually vanishing. I’ve been watching this happen for the past ten years or so—virtual friends with whom I once engaged in spirited online banter who are suddenly just no longer there. In times past, we might have continued our correspondence offline, by handwritten letter, or later, by email, but now, attempts to reconnect are often answered with a “Return To Sender” stamp. Some of us just never give up, because we have become what we represent ourselves to be. The sillier or more self-deluding continue to post profile pictures of our younger selves, as if, like digital Dorian Grays, the simulacrum of youth could fool the world. If no one can see the fossilization, we think, maybe they’ll think it isn’t happening.
Toward the end of the century’s first decade, those born after 1990 began to characterize Facebook as the realm of dinosaurs—the land before time—and migrated to other platforms like Instagram, the latest stage in this mouth-to-anus human centipede of online discourse being TikTok. I can envision a time in the very near future when Facebook becomes the online equivalent of a retirement home. Green Pastures or Sunny Acres, complete with Bingo and recipes for maintaining healthy bowels and shrinking overgrown prostates. The kids may stop by on the occasional Sunday afternoon, but their visits will become less and less frequent, and we will find ourselves mostly alone, staring into the black mirror of our ‘Facebook Memories.’ Increasingly, we will log in mainly to find out who has died.
The handling of death on social media is all by itself reason to make an exit long before your time has come. Whatever noble intentions of fostering community and fellow-feeling Facebook may once have had, it has long since become simply a place to show off, and when people die, we show off our grief. For precisely one day. Unless you were a very big star—and often even if you were—that’s all you get. You can say that this is no worse than coming across the obituary of a high school acquaintance in the local paper and pausing to remember before moving on to do the weekend chores, but even in that case, you might at least stop by the funeral home to comfort the widow, or if it was a close friend, to read a poem or sing old songs. There is no Irish wake on social media, no tears, just a kind of obligatory leaving of flowers—one-sentence encomiums that, as often as not, are just another form of virtue-signaling. Like the most perfunctory of Catholic confessions, you say your Hail Marys and are cleansed. It’s remarkable how self-redemptive these meager tributes can be, and how briskly we are able to move on from them. There is something very wrong with this. Death should not be so easy. Each death of a friend is my own death.
When I was younger (though still not really young), in the late 90s or early 00s, I longed to be known for my accomplishments large and small, and because I was involved in the entertainment business and also struggling to be an author, I saw Facebook as a way to maintain visibility, presence on the proverbial radar screen, and meanwhile to preserve relationships with people who were or had been important to me. Despite having been brought up with the Protestant “modesty is godly, boastfulness is bad” ethic, I got reasonably good at advertising my relevance, though it always made me feel a bit squirrely. I posted what I thought were interesting articles and offered what I thought were pithy, incisive opinions, and thereby sometimes discovered kindred spirits who enriched my life. But I’ve come recently to believe that a great measure of this was, if not quite the casting of pearls before swine, at least vaguely masturbatory. Nothing was truly consummated. No real satisfaction resulted—not like the wine and weed-fueled conversations I once had deep into the night with my closest friends and colleagues. Because in the end, our digital avatars are static, self-concerned entities, and it is very, very difficult to move them into that transpersonal mode where one feels, if even for moment, that “I am you and you are me, and we are all together.” It is a dry stream, a fallow field, a digital desert.
And so, I think it may be time to urge all who are standing waist-deep in the quicksand of time, knowing that their one day commemoration and summary digital interment may be around the corner, to seize back the space in the noosphere that is rightfully theirs and that is, perhaps, the greatest gift of a life well-lived. Turn on, tune in, drop out. Undertake an Ayahuasca ceremony in the Peruvian rain forest (anyone game?) Read Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley (esp. his ‘Perennial Philosophy’), Ibn Arabi and Avicenna. Follow Carl Jung into his ‘Red Book.’ Discover unrecognized reserves of love and lavish them on all who’ve been kind to you, and even some who haven’t. Form a Remnant. Rediscover sex. Go someplace risky. Do not go gentle into that good night, that long tunnel at the end of which the internet may conclude that you really weren’t worth all that much after all. Don’t let the merchants of Maya package your last words as an NFT. Say to the Machine, “These will be my best years, because they will be the years in which things finally become clear—or at least as clear as I can make them.” Time waits for no man.
Don’t die on Facebook. It would be the death of a commodity, a token, and all-too-soon, devalued and forgotten.