Facebook: Our Collective Funeral

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My heart has been heavy this week.  A friend of mine suddenly passed away in a kayaking accident while vacationing with his wife and three, little children.  All week I have been thinking of them and their dear extended family, as I keep waiting to wake up from this horrific dream.  My Facebook news feed populates with new messages of sympathy to the grieving family, pictures of the vibrant man, and a link where people can help support his widow and children.

My fingers slide upward across the screen to subsequent posts.  There’s a political story, a video of kittens, posts about the local sports team, and I can’t help but feel it’s so meaningless in the shadow of this hefty cross my dear friends are left to bare.

I’m one who shares quite a lot on social media, but this week just didn’t seem right.  Having pictures of my work trip to Denver appear on my grieving friends’ news feed just seems too insensitive.  It’s unfair that I should be frolicking at the base of the Rockies, while my friends iron out the logistics of bringing a body back home and arranging his funeral.  As I scroll through the posts, I wish for a moment Facebook could stop and honor this man with a moment of silence – that just for a few precious seconds, the frivolous or even meaningful posts would pause, and we could all honor the extinguished flame of his life.  I pause on another friend’s post where she tagged her deceased mom to wish her a happy birthday, pondering what they would be doing if she were still alive.  This week I am sensitive that Facebook is both a hallowed memorial to the dead and a playground sharing the very same virtual space.

When it comes to tragedy, Facebook is the open mic in a high school gym for people to come forward, speak, and process pain, of which our world has no shortage.  49 people killed in a shooting rampage in Orlando, terrorists killing over 42 in Istanbul, a boy dragged into the waters by a crocodile – we grieve the tragedies of this world, and part of that grief involves processing.  Facebook has become the collective journal for processing tragedy.  It gives us a place to say, “This happened, and it deeply moved me.”

I’ve always felt that there exists a very fine line between genuine processing as a part of grieving and exaggerating grief in order to bring attention to one’s self.  There’s something that prompts me to post, “I had flown into that airport in Istanbul just a few years ago,” as though this tragedy somehow makes me important.   It is like the person who stands up at the open mic crying and speaks about the deceased classmate that they mostly ignored, but we should acknowledge their pain because they had a class or two with the departed.  I don’t know; maybe I’m being too critical, but I am acutely aware of a weakness inside of me – the tension between sharing something meaningful and something aimed at garnishing attention.  In that light, Facebook has quickly joined in the dilemma of all journalism – the balance between truth and popularity, between honoring the dead and profiting off of tragedy.

Unlike a funeral or an open mic that has a semblance of order, Facebook offers a convenience, and in such convenience, there is a loss of reverence.  It is a funeral for which we can come and go as we please, while simultaneously carrying on less weighty conversations.  It is a place for us to make comments without staring into the eyes of those who are grieving.  And because it is a virtual space, we often forget about the broken lives on the other side of the screen.

At times and to this degree, Facebook is the worst funeral you could ever attend.  Imagine a funeral for a little child where someone stands up, and instead of eulogizing the dead, they attack the parents and accuse them of negligence.  And yet, this plays out over and over on the hallowed halls of social media.  I break to think about the dad who rushed into the waters to save his son from the crocodile, opening his computer and finding a blog from an angry mom publicly shaming him for not keeping a better watch on his son.

Nowhere is this vanity and insensitivity seen more than the cliché social media behavior that follows a massive tragedy.  Consider Paris or Orlando.  People first post stories with a catchy hashtag like #Prayfor[cityname]. Very shortly thereafter come the “We are [city name]” posts with an iconic picture (the Eiffel Tower or Gay Pride Flag, for example).  Within a day, in an effort to turn our grief into activism, anti-gun posts appear, prompting an immediate response from pro-gun supporters.  Occasionally we’ll see the fringe posts that call for banning a certain demographic or how this attack reflects God’s judgment.  For our responses to be cliché, we would first have to admit that the cause of our responses (in this case massive violence) is commonplace, and that of course is what is most tragic about all of this.  But secondly, it is tragic because we turn the spotlight from the deceased onto ourselves and use their tragedy to attract traffic to our own agenda.  Of this offense, I confess at times, I have sinned egregiously.

I often wonder if Facebook is great or despicable, whether history will remember it as a tool for globally communicating importance or just an outlet for nonsense.  Time will tell.  The double edged sword of Facebook is that it gives the public a cone for listening, but we are a public prone to turn it around and use it as a loudspeaker.

I haven’t said much on social media about my friend’s passing.  Frankly, I haven’t said much on Facebook this week about anything.  I don’t deserve to.  I hesitate to even share this reflection for fear that I might twist my processing into a way of driving traffic to my blog.  But I think this is an observation worth sharing.

I’m reminded of a passage in the biblical book of Revelation, which describes a moment in heaven so incredible and powerful that everyone falls silent for a half hour (Revelation 8:1).  It echoes the refrain that tells us that sometimes silence speaks loudest.  That the rests on a musical staff are just as important as the notes, and at times, instruments are called to stay quiet so that others might be heard.  Facebook gives all of us the tools to publicly process the world around us.  The lesson here is this: let us remember that within the social media circus sits an audience of broken lives.  All of us can make noise in an otherwise noisy venue, but the whispers and caresses of comfort are the most persuasive gestures of healing.  And in the end, that is what our world ultimately needs: more healing.

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