What do we fear more—dying or being forgotten?
My father, who was always a private man, died a little more than 7 years ago. I don’t know if he worried about being forgotten—that’s one of the many questions I never got to ask him. But, in the days after he died, I took on that fear for him. When the swells of grief ebbed, periodically, and allowed other emotions to emerge, what took over was anger. Fury. That, because his life was quiet and he had few friends, there was little left in the world of a truly remarkable man. He had been so complicated—the man who loved the desert monks; the trained opera singer who learned to play piano at the age of 60; the retirement-age therapist who taught himself to measure and treat brain wave patterns; the Vietnam soldier who never let his anti-war daughter take an uncomplicated position on any conflict. But no one else would ever discover those things about him. I could write out a list of some of his more remarkable traits, like I just began to do, and I still wouldn’t be able to explain who he was, wouldn’t be able to make him live in the minds of other people the way he did in mine. He was gone. The world, cruelly, would let him go. And I was furious with the world for that callousness.
What is the value in living a private life? If the measure of a life is its lasting impact on the world, then most lives would be reckoned meaningless. Billions have lived, some into old age, some only for a few moments, and left only their small, fading tracks on the surface of the greater world. Like my father, everything they knew and loved and experienced passed away with them. They weren’t famous actors, or prolific authors, or the leaders of great social movements. And so, were they worth less? Few of us have anything more to recommend our lives—only our family, our friends, some small contributions to the field in which we work. We make little noise through life, and someday will make no noise at all. Should we fear that moment when we become only a chorister among the silent choir of billions?
We live in a world increasingly arbitrated by attention. It’s our greatest currency—the ability to focus eyes on one spot and then another. Our attention is auctioned, by Facebook and Google, Twitter and Youtube. Those companies make money by selling to advertisers their ability to move our eyes where they wish them to be. Google and Facebook spend millions on developers, to better catch our attention, to keep us scrolling down the page, past ad after ad. And we are happy to comply, for the most part, spending hours and days of our lives focused on their “free” products because our attention, our time–which is worth hundreds of billions of dollars to these companies–is, to us, worthless.
And we can’t say we’re given nothing in return. The Google search bar, judging from the “suggested” searches that pop up as you’re typing, functions mostly as a modern confessional. Type in “God” and the first suggestion is “god I hate my life.” Type in “my job,” “my husband,” or “my wife,” and prepare for an even more depressing list of options. Apparently, the 10th most common “why” question asked of Google is “Why did I get married?” The 12th and 13th are, respectively, “Why am I so tired?” and “Why am I always tired?” Life in the Google search bar looks bleak. But the people who are resorting to typing rhetorical, philosophical queries into Google aren’t having their best day. In the past, they might have talked to a friend, gone to a preacher, prayed or just suffered silently. In the digital age, they hit enter and send their frustration into the algorithmic universe. At least, thanks to the long list of unhappy search suggestions, they know they aren’t alone. These days, if you don’t want to be alone, you never have to be. Not anymore.
And, of course, Facebook cares about you. It wants to know you, to share your life with others. That fear we’ve been talking about—the fear of being forgotten, of being incidental, tertiary to the movements of the world around us? Facebook will make that feel better, connecting you with “friends” who will “like” the things you do and say. The deep insecurity about how others see you, how your life appears to the people you meet, the value of your days—that is the lifeblood of Facebook. We pay them with our attention and they serve us back small, unsatisfying bites of what we crave the most—validation. We exist. We are known. We are liked.
I remember, when I was 11 or 12, buying a little book full of “fun” personality quizzes to keep me busy on a family road trip. Rocking along in the backseat, I circled answer “a” or “b” or “c”, (in pencil, because what 12 year old is sure about anything,) test after test. I got one result. I got another. And another. And, maybe ten tests in, I stopped. It turns out, this was boring. The questions and answers were laughably transparent. I could easily pick out which answers would label me “an adventurous spirit” or “a great friend.” The whole book was pointless, worthless. I buried it in my backpack and, when I found it again a few years later, was so embarrassed to see it again that I immediately threw it away.
It doesn’t embarrass me now, (otherwise I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone about it.) That’s just how adolescents try to make sense of themselves. They think of identity in terms of labels. Something put on from the outside—thus the mohawks and piercings, the letter jackets and band t-shirts. In the absence of knowing anything solid about yourself, you define yourself by your likes, by your favorite music or the sport you play. A teenager has no clue who they are yet and so they try on “selves” like costumes. Ridiculous as it seems in retrospect, it’s absolutely normal. And, in the meantime, beneath those painted shells, a real, more complicated adult self develops and takes the forefront.
But we’re living in the age of “extended adolescence” now. And it isn’t just the young clinging to the safety of those childhood identities. There’s an incentive, thanks to social media, to create a “self” through performed acts. Through “likes” and “shares” and constant photos. Increasingly, I’m seeing those same personality quizzes popping up on the Facebook pages of friends. Which Golden Girl Are You? What State Best Fits Your Personality? We’ve been given an audience and a stage to act upon. Like teenagers again, we feel the constant eyes of the world upon us and, desperate for the affection of that world, we pantomime our lives for its approval, shaping our private moments for public consumption. How many of us have experienced something funny and then immediately begun molding it into a narrative for a Facebook post? Or heard something infuriating and begun mentally typing up a description for our friends? It’s almost second nature. See something beautiful and you immediately have to capture it, caption it, to share. Even in the moments when life is happening, our attention isn’t fully there. It isn’t just our own.
We shouldn’t be worrying anymore about the threat of living a private life. We need to worry instead about the dangers of living a public one.
In 1993, David Foster Wallace wrote a long essay called “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” which contained a number of insightful points about modern culture. But one section of that essay really impacted me personally, and that was the section in which he discussed “rebels.” In a literary world enamored with irony, with tearing down old ideas, but not with risking the creation of new ideas, he wrote:
“Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.”
If real rebels risk disapproval, then where today do we find the real rebels? In this age of performance, surely they are the ones out there, living full lives of richness and meaning, and not telling you anything about it.
Can you remember a time when, as a child, you were given a secret to keep, and you shared it instead? I remember one instance in perfect technicolor—that moment after I have just told a friend the entire personal story I had been given, as a secret, by another. When the last words had been spoken, the whole story out. And I realized the significance of what I had done. It hit me that I would never have that secret back to myself. Even though the original teller, who gave me the secret, would never know that it had been spoken, still all the power, and intimacy of what I had been told, was gone. Could never be re-captured. I can’t remember the original secret, but I will never forget the telling of it. The pain hit somewhere deep in my gut. I knew the worth, then, of what had been lost.
Now, I’m teaching myself the delicious sensation of keeping a secret with my life. The most beautiful things I see, the perfect tableaux of sky and ground, or animals racing across a field, or the peculiar cadences of language overheard from the next table—I savor them because they are mine to keep, because they are for no one else. Moments I’ve experienced only with my husband—funny mistakes each of us have made, places we’ve only seen together. The pleasure of sparking in each other those memories, which we could never explain to anyone else. The private jokes and little kindnesses we’ve shared, all more meaningful because only the two of us know them. This privacy, shared and alone, the internal narrative that makes meaning of light cast through morning windows, of voices heard and meals eaten. The smells that trigger memories which are only my own. Somehow, now all that matters more than it once did. It feels at once both rarefied and also ritualistic. Solemn, in the religious sense.
It does take a dose, I think, of old-time religion to make some sense of what I’m saying. If the self is only a physical thing, in a physical universe, then, to create meaning out of a life, it’s more important to leave behind solid evidence of having lived. Photographs, inventions, writings. And if those things are tucked into a drawer, burned in a house fire, or merely forgotten by the next generation? If Facebook shutters and all that data dissolves into gibberish, that’s it. We’re done.
In such a physical universe, those who achieve fame get the only true immortality. Donald Trump, with his name printed in history books, will live far longer than I will. Some of those Youtube “creators” and Instagram “influencers” will hold a firmer place in the human memory. And those with 3,000 followers will count far more people who remember them after they’ve gone.
This is the fear that drives the profit margins of social media. The reason why we throw all our thoughts and experiences, dreams, innovations and opinions into the world—to build up a bulwark against death and being forgotten.
Because, kept private, all those moments, pleasures, and insights, will have meant nothing.
There’s some dignity to be found in that, I suppose. In saying that life is short, briefly remarkable, and then ultimately means nothing to the universe in which you were born.
But I can’t believe it. Consciousness—that part of the person that can look at itself from a distance, can speak to itself, can anger and inspire itself—is too richly drawn. Whether it is something to do with a specific God, or a collective unconscious, or what have you, it certainly departs from the physical. And it must have some meaning. Or else, why does it exist?
I have always hated that old saying, “The personal is political.” Not because it’s entirely false, but because to lump together those two aspects of life—the personal and the political—seems to elevate the latter and cheapen the former. At the first, life is personal. Alone, in a dark room, with only your mind to keep you company, you are still alive. That is life. Your private, personal life is truly where you live. Your time, and your mind, belongs to you first, before it belongs to the mass of others who would claim it.
And hold it close now, closer than ever before, because it is being claimed from you—your personal life. Now that your experiences, memories and passions can be digitized, made into data, and then monetized to sell you stuff, you will always be prompted to give away more of your self. Someone will always be asking you to answer a survey, post a comment, post a photo album, like or follow, and share. Always share more. Share. Why aren’t you sharing?
Someday we may not remember what it was to be truly, blissfully, alone with ourselves. To be silent. To keep a thought, an opinion, held only in our mind. So while you can, be selfish. Be a rebel. Keep your own secrets and focus your attention on the world physically before you. Time is passing, playing out lyrical, nonsensical, unreckonable scenes meant only for you.
Risk being forgotten by the larger world. Isn’t it worth being forgotten? In the meantime, you can live.
Tonya Stiles is Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
To comment, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Don’t forget the Zephyr ads! All links are hot!