The first time I communicated with Beth Mitchell was in November of 2013 when she tweeted that an article I wrote was “excellent” except for the incorrect use of the word comprise. I don’t normally befriend strangers on Twitter who criticize my grammar, but here I am, three years later, mourning her.
Over time Beth became a regular reader of Christ and Pop Culture, despite that grammatical error. She encouraged her coworker Amanda Wortham to write for us, which Amanda did, soon joining as a staff writer. An outspoken advocate for Amanda and her other friends, Beth enthusiastically shared their work whenever she could. She had a fierce loyalty and commitment to the truth. As a teacher and mentor at a private Christian school, she had, I imagine, plenty of reasons to avoid posting controversial articles on social media, but she did so, and not to stir up trouble, either. Beth was not interested in trolling or fighting online, but she was interested in edifying people, in challenging their presuppositions. Although I never saw her teach, I imagine this fearlessness for the truth inspired her students as well. She became a Christ and Pop Culture Member a few years later and quickly became a regular and beloved voice in our private member’s group on Facebook, joining in our conversations, praying for us, and fiercely competing in a Hamilton lip-sync battle. So, it hit us all hard in September when she announced that she had been diagnosed with brain cancer.To choose to be alive takes no small amount of courage, because this fallen world will eat our hearts.
When we talk about social media and the kinds of “friends” we have online, sometimes we think of it as unreal. The mediation of the internet and the screen, the social media platforms which are so insidiously designed to encourage us to craft an Image of ourselves—all of this seems like it would make friendships, real friendships nearly impossible online. We are incentivized by social media to put our best-self forward, to promote ourselves, to pander to our audience for Likes and Shares and Retweets. Social interaction has been simplified and quantified for the most pleasurable and addictive experience online. And most of us know this already, which is why we tend to think of our online friendships as in some sense unreal.
Real life is that thing that happens when we close our laptop and put away our phone. Online life is just a performance to signal our value in the world. Social media is designed to give us the thinnest, most self-centered semblance of an actual human connection. For example, I don’t have to remember anyone’s birthday anymore. I can just rely on Facebook to remind me. We are so inoculated from intimacy that I don’t even have to visit a friend’s Facebook page to wish them happy birthday; from the safety of the sidebar, I can see each friend who has a birthday today and quickly comment on all of them in one place. So I can keep wishing them happy birthday year after year without ever having to see the things they post, status updates about job losses or birth announcements or political commentary. The internet managed to create something phonier than a generic, unsigned birthday card. No wonder we feel that this isn’t real life.
But here’s the thing: the human capacity for intimacy and empathy through language is much stronger than all the distracting, artificial, automated-friendship efforts of social media platforms. We were made for community. And that community is formed through words. And even when those words are crammed into a medium that resists intimacy and love, the words can win out. Because that’s just how strong our yearning for one another can be.
I say “can be” because it is a choice. If you want, your interactions online can be phony, vacuous, and self-centered. It’s probably the default for many of us. It appeals to our egos and our weak attention spans and it feels right. It is the way we’ve been trained to live together. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In the months following Beth’s diagnosis she interacted less frequently in the private CaPC Facebook group. She had to stop teaching because of the radiation and the pain. Her eyesight deteriorated. She was on a lot of medication. But she was still present with us. When several of our members suffered their own tragedies or medical emergencies, Beth was there to empathize and to pray for us. During an insane election season, Beth took the time to read and share articles that challenged Donald Trump’s campaign because she was a committed conservative evangelical. And when the criticism of Russell Moore rose to a peak after Trump’s win, Beth repeatedly spoke out in defense of him. She never lost her fire even as she was losing her life.
Beth chose to be fully alive, thanking God for each day, loving those around her, sharing the gospel, praying for people she never met in person, modeling for her students what it looks like to love the Lord and advocate for justice and delight in beautiful stories. To choose to be alive takes no small amount of courage, because this fallen world will eat our hearts, and it goes a lot easier for us if we just dull our senses and embrace the end. This is true for those suffering from brain cancer and for those who imagine themselves to be in perfect health. I hope to God that I have even half the courage Beth had when my health fails me.
I’m told by people who lived and worked with Beth that the vitality, honesty, and compassion she conveyed online was exactly the person she was offline, and I believe it. We are all so skeptical about the possibility of building any meaningful relationships over the internet, but Beth’s witness shows that “real” community, with vulnerability and obligations and joy and weeping and love, can exist wherever people are willing to use words to bear with one another over time.
Beth’s children and husband, her family, her church, her students and coworkers, and those who only knew her from the words she wrote and shared online—we were all blessed to witness a passionate, righteous, and courageous woman of God. She was alive. And she still is, with Christ. And I’m grateful to have known her.