Like most citizens of social media (especially Facebook), I’ve looked at many of the posts coming from people I know and wondered... what happened? How did some of the friends I’ve known to be smart, compassionate and kind suddenly latch on to constant anger, confrontation, and nonsense?
Given what passes for public discourse these days, I wasn’t shocked by the words, but I was surprised by some of the speakers. I’m adamant about not living in an echo chamber, though, so I’m reluctant to just block or hide people I don’t agree with. I blocked a few of the loudest offenders (most of whom weren’t in-person acquaintances anyway), but for the most part, I just left it all in my feed. I shook my head and hoped - in vain, I thought - that something might quiet the noise and bring back the people I knew.
I never guessed what that something would be.
A couple of weeks ago, my Mother passed away after a long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. We spent the day notifying close family and friends, and then we announced it the same way most people share life events these days - on Facebook. I knew there would be plenty of response, but I was still surprised by the depth of the kindness people offered - and by some of the people who offered the most heartfelt messages.
Now, I should make it clear that I’m fortunate to have a good number of friends who are nice pretty much all of the time. But right there alongside their messages were posts from my more… “opinionated” acquaintances. Some of the same people who’d just been firing off derisive memes and shouting down anyone who wasn’t on “their side” suddenly became the people I’d known in person. They offered genuine concern, empathy, and some beautifully kind words. The online personas suddenly became human again.
There’s something here that goes beyond social media or even grief, and I think it’s this: When people communicate on a one-to-one, personal level, they’re almost unfailingly decent and kind. The empathy only disappears when they’re talking to no one in particular - which happens all too often on social media and in just about every other form of automated communication. You use a very different voice when you’re shouting into the online abyss than when you’re talking directly to another human being.
What I hope can come from moments like these is that all of us can rediscover this kind of human connection. Technology has made it more possible than ever to communicate - but we all need a reminder that there's always a person on the other end of the line. And that person can always use a kind word.