I like to talk. In general, I feel that I usually know what the right thing is to say to a person when they need advice or admonishment. But there’s one situation where I don’t know if I’ll ever have the right words: when a person has lost a loved one. What is there to say that could ever come close to what they are going through? The sorrow, the questions, the guilt, the shock, what words exist that could be shaped to be commensurate to their experience? As difficult as these situations are, imagine if it was your job to summarize the entire life of a person within one or two sentences, not to offer eulogies or condolences, but to give readers or viewers a succinct statement that expressed what the person did with their life. Whenever I read of a murder, a suicide, or an accident, I try to note how the reporter sums up the life of a once living human in 12 words or less. It usually says volumes about what we value in our culture:
These concise summaries allow us to believe that we really know someone without having an intimate and personal relationship with them; it’s the kind of illusion of intimacy that allows us to build “relationships” in a increasingly digital world.
In my home town an older couple committed suicide together in their car this week. The last line of the newspaper article describing the incident is a statement by a homicide detective:
“‘The couple’s home was well-kept,’ Morales said.”
Whoever these people were there had to be something more significant to their lives than a well-kept home. This kind of hopeless attempt at summarizing a person’s life is far from uncommon; most news articles concerning someone’s death end with a similar description. Nearly always these summaries tend to be nothing more than a list of the cultural options the deceased identified themselves with, a set of choices they made as a consumer in the world: “liked model trains, enjoyed playing catch with his grandkids, and was an active member at the Elk’s Lodge.” Notice how similar these are to personal ads or profiles on Facebook or Myspace? Just put everything in the present tense and you have yourself a fine example of a “Man Seeking Woman Age 40-55.”
These concise summaries allow us to believe that we really know someone without having an intimate and personal relationship with them; it’s the kind of illusion of intimacy that allows us to build “relationships” in a increasingly digital world. On Facebook and Myspace these summaries allow us to make “friends” with people quickly, cutting through all the social awkwardness of actual human interaction. With a few clicks we can be chatting on topics and interests we both share. In a personal ad, the summaries let us dive right into exciting, new “relationships” without the attachment and investment of emotional and intellectual intimacy.
And in these newspaper eulogies we are given a chance to acknowledge that a person died without having to pause for reflection that the person was an individual. We can quickly picture them attending their PTA meeting, or gardening, or throwing a football to their son and then move on to the next article. But what does this mean about us as people and the nature of human worth? If all that we are remembered for is compiled in an absurdly short list of our tastes, hobbies, habits, and jobs then we are merely agents of culture–consumers and workers and nothing else.
This is what bothers me so much about these terse statements. They encourage us to think of ourselves and others as important only to our culture. But the Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God. Not that we are gods, but God has imbued us with some of His own characteristics. The image of God does not refer to the set of cultural options that we sign up for in our short lives; it’s not the genres of music we like, our favorite films, our “heroes”, or our hobbies. We are unique individuals before the LORD, able to communicate, love, learn, create, and know Him, all through His grace. If you think about your most precious relationships in life you will find that they are in part built on common tastes and interests, but they are far from the sum of these interests. It’s the way we can communicate, serve each other, and love, it’s the aspects of our lives that are not able to be summarized; they can be shared through stories, but never really summed up.
When we allow ourselves to conflate our tastes, hobbies, purchases, and jobs in life with our value as individuals, then we are embracing a worldview that is materialistic and humanistic. As Believers, may God grant us the grace to love and value one another in the example that Christ gave for us, not the Media.