Odds are, we’ve never met. Unless you’re one of my friends or family members, you probably happened across this post because it appeared on Patheos, you saw it someone’s social media feed or you stumbled upon it inadvertently. We don’t know each other. We’re not friends. I’m just another content creator giving you a few minutes of distraction at worst or illumination at best. We’re strangers.
So why the hell have I wasted so much time trying to impress you?
That’s not meant as an insult. I appreciate your readership, (most of) your comments, and your support. You have an unlimited number of options to occupy your time with, and you chose to read the words I cobbled together. That means a lot.
Rather, it’s a question for me, one I’ve been mulling over for a few days now. I’ve been musing on what I value and what I crave, and whether any of that matters. I’ve learned I spend a lot of time trying to impress people I don’t know and, in the end, I’m not sure why.
I’ve had a lot of experience with funerals this summer. In the last few months, both of my grandmothers died. My wife’s last remaining grandmother also passed away, and her funeral was last week. Each funeral had its moments of sadness, but also joy. All three funerals were full. I heard countless stories about the lives impacted by these three women. The kind words said, meals cooked, friendly hugs given. Service to churches and families that resonates today. All three lived full lives. They were involved in community. They cared about other people and found tangible ways to meet their needs. Not one of them cared about likes on Facebook or favorites on Instagram. And when they died, the people touched by their lives showed up to mourn and celebrate them.
I don’t spend a lot of time in community, but I’m proud whenever my Twitter follower count increases or I gain a new friend on Facebook. I don’t serve meals or get involved with other people like I should; I write blogs and create podcasts, and send them out into the ether for others to consume. I write things that I hope have the appearance of depth or insight, but I rarely get involved in living those things out with others or being involved in the messiness of their lives.
Instead, I sit. I wait for people to “Like” my posts, comment on my blogs, share my podcasts and retweet my pithy bon mots. I obsess over readership on this site. I engage in lengthy intellectual conversations online while I ignore people in my real life. I live virtually, shun locally.
None of these virtual friends will attend my funeral. None of them will cook me a dinner in the midst of tragedy or sit with me when life gets difficult (although they may click the sad response on Facebook or send a frowny-face emoji). And I’m not going to go to their funeral. Why should I? We’re strangers. Even the version of me you do see on social media, in podcasts and on this blog is filtered, edited and carefully cultivated. We don’t know each other, even if the constant interaction on social media fools us into thinking otherwise.
Now, I’m not writing this to announce that I’m entering some Luddite monasticism where I log out of Facebook and Twitter and delete this blog. I love social media. I think there is great potential in our online communities. I look forward to how that will change in the future and I hope we will learn to use it better.
But I’m writing this because those funerals made a mark on me. At the end of our lives, all that’s going to be left of us is what’s said at our funeral. The true test of how we treated others will be seen in who shows up and what they say. The stretch of true impact we’ve made on others’ lives won’t be seen in how many retweets we get, how popular our Instagram feed is or how many copies of our books we sell. It’s seen in the people who come to mourn your death and celebrate your life.
I grew up warned about living for money, and I’ve tried to cultivate a life in which I don’t idolize the dollar or obsess over possessions. But instead of becoming more content and intentional, I’ve just made “impact” and “meaning” my idols. I’m nothing if I’m not writing something for people to read, creating something that tells other people “here I am.” My life has no meaning if I don’t feel significant, like I’m making a contribution to society, becoming a thought-influencer.
I obsess over likes, retweets and readership not because they bring me cash but because they stroke my ego. They’re an instant way to know someone’s reading my words, registering what I said. They mean I’m being seen. They briefly convince me that I matter. I ascribe worth to them, and I think that if they’re not rolling in, I’m not living up to my potential or making any difference. Without an audience, I’m invisible and unsuccessful.
Involvement in real life doesn’t provide that immediate feedback. Investment in friendships might take years before you feel a connection, and even caring for my children is sometimes more exhausting than immediately rewarding. Being there for others is tiring, inconvenient and ego-crushing. You have to serve, you have to listen, you have to put them first. You may not be thanked and, in the end, you may wonder what it’s worth. It’s why it’s easier just to lean on social media responses and digital friendships instead of tangible, flesh and blood relationships.
And yet, in the end, what will matter? A blog post that is lost to the noisy news cycle three hours later, or an evening spent eating ice cream with my kids? A Twitter follower count in the thousands or a small group of friends praying and weeping together? A crowded Facebook feed or an empty funeral?
You won’t come to my funeral, and I need to realize that’s okay. I like our relationship this way. I need to let go of thinking that the “real me” and the moments that matter are the ones that occur online, and that my impact and worth can be measured with data. Real life is what matters. And if my likes take a hit, that’s okay. Real people like me.