Whenever someone passes away, we soon learn just how valued, admired, and loved they were.
Tributes flow in. Warm anecdotes, recollections of kindnesses, and sharing of the wisdom of the deceased. Our lament is sharpened by honouring the one we’ve lost.
It’s a good thing, for the most part. Celebrating the positives and downplaying anything else, because it’s the decent and respectful thing to do. Speak no ill of the dead, lest… well, what? It’s impolite? They might somehow take vengeance? Or you just might join them sooner than you expect, so there but for the grace, and so forth.
At the very least, it’s common courtesy – it’s not like they’re still around to defend themselves against any insult, nor to benefit from the praise. And there’s the problem.
We have a word for such a tribute, whether it’s spoken or written: eulogy. Most people think it’s an encomium specifically for those who have passed on, because they only ever hear the word in that context. But that’s not what it means. Being dead is not required.
The association of eulogies with funerals and remembrance is a sad reflection of our reluctance to deliver praise to the living.
I’m guilty of it too. I’m forever reading things, or using things, or watching things, and enjoying them. I think, yes, this is something great. They really did well with this.
But that’s as far as it goes. In past decades, you might forgive me for not getting out my notepaper, pen, and an envelope and postage stamp, but what excuse do I have now? I can find the creator of anything in minutes, no matter my location. I have the means to not only identify but to actually contact these people, via a single, slim device in my trouser pocket. And yet, most of the time, I just… don’t.
I could try to pin the blame on British culture, and this island’s famed reticence when it comes to the display of emotion. By and large, we’d much rather abjectly apologise for a mistake, than suffer the embarrassment of receiving profuse thanks or an actual compliment. It just isn’t seemly. We’re ill-equipped.
But that argument is sophistry. We’re human beings, and masochistic Victorian social etiquette aside, everyone enjoys a little bit of praise. Other nations are more at ease with themselves in that regard, and more effusive, but this strange duality is commonplace. We’ll take any plaudits we can get, but when it comes time to return the favour, it just doesn’t occur to us.
Except when someone has the good grace to actually die.
Maybe it’s because we won’t be putting them in the position of having to graciously respond. Maybe it’s because we needn’t fear contradiction from others, because the only acceptable response to praise of the dead is a sage nod, and a slightly sad smile of recognition.
Or maybe it’s because, while they’re alive, we forget.
We forget how much we enjoy the validation, and the affirmation, and the recognition, and just the oh god maybe I’m good at this after all that we get when someone else says thank you, or well done, or keep going.
We forget that it’s oxygen in the vacuum, and water in the desert. We forget how much we need it.
Thankfulness seems to be out of fashion. The order of the day is entitlement, but it also has a more casual, pernicious counterpart: the implicit separation of the work from its maker.
To us, amidst an abundance of things vying for our attention, each one is just an object. Something to be judged dispassionately, given a thumbs-up (or down), and then discarded in favour of the next. A cold, mechanistic treadmill of offerings, unattributed and without ownership. Bylines go unseen, and egos unheeded. Because there’s always another thing, isn’t there?
We’ve got it perfectly backwards. There are no things. There’s only us, and whatever we make, or do.
Every word was written by someone. Every brushstroke painted. Every note composed, and played. Every artificial object in the environment, designed and built. Every instruction written. Plans made. Inspiration found.
Everything has agency, and it’s all just… us.
As you read this screen, try to see behind the veneer. You’re not reading words, but rather thoughts. You’re reading me. Now look around you.
Your chair. Desk. Computer. Phone.
Home. Office. Vehicle. City.
These are made things; the works of humanity. They’re not separate and external, even though it seems that way. They’re not objects. They are people – your people – and thus, they are you.
We’re all consumers of art. I wonder how many of us realise that.
Sculpture, paintings, theatre, poetry… those particular forms don’t have much common currency in this age, but they’re also only the most rarified examples. What about video games, software, comic books, TV, and movies? What about the artful tweet, or meme image? The Tumblr blog, or the YouTube mash-up?
What about the humble pulp-genre story, or fan fiction?
If you see divisions there, you may only be seeing your own subconscious prejudice. It’s all art. It’s all made. And it’s all us.
I’ve been known to make a thing or two, from time to time. This text, which is me, is before you even now. And to my lasting joy, validation, and staving-off the worst of existential terror and doubt, people do tell me when they like these things of mine.
I’m privileged; enormously so. The doubt-voices that are the conjoined twins of inspiration and creativity never get much of a chance to whisper their quicksilver poison. I’m not here today to fish for compliments.
What I’m asking is that you think of the others. The ones who are sitting on your screen, or on your desk. The ones whose notes are playing even now. The 140-character ones, or the 1,000-word ones, or the 100,000-word ones.
The ones flickering across your TV screen, or dancing to your press of buttons on a device, or the ones made of ink and paper and emotion. Think of those people, as they’re embodied through their art.
Thumbs up, or down?
If it’s the latter, let conscience be your guide. Perhaps indifferent silence does have a purpose after all.
But if it’s the former, well, there’s the thing. Imagine if it were you instead. Wouldn’t you want to know?
It need only take a moment; 140 characters are more than enough. Believe me, each one counts. If they’ve made something that reached you, and – even just for a moment – left you better than you were before, don’t just move on. These are people, remember; like you. Don’t wait.
Tell them. Tell them now.
Tell them while they can still hear.