2007AprilNac 092b.jpg

The Real Social Network

Here is a thoughtful and poignant essay about the ebbing of genuine community in our hyper-linked world. It was prompted by a scene from our past (and the present of rural Ireland.) From Brian Kaller via Front Porch Republic.


The other night I saw the end of a life well-lived. I didn’t know him; I just saw his funeral.

My bus rolled through the dark night I was riding the bus from my job in Dublin to our home in the Irish countryside, and the tiny roads take us through one rural village after another. That night police stopped us just outside one where a funeral was being held; as there is usually only one road through town, there was nothing to do but wait half an hour or so.

I’d seen funerals here, but never one this big – by my estimate, several times the population of our village. I pictured half the farms and houses for many miles around emptying out for this man, who by all accounts was not wealthy or renowned, but simply beloved.

I was one of the only people left on the bus, and the driver and I stepped out, caps to chest, chatting as the procession slowly passed. Turns out the bus driver lives down the road but we’d never met either, and that set us talking about mutual acquaintances and local gossip. We’d seen each other once a week for years, never exchanging more than a sleepy mumble – but now that we’re on first names I can more comfortably pass the long ride chatting, or more comfortably bring up the delicate matter of the drunk in the third row.

We don’t get enough moments like that, when a stranger suddenly a neighbour. We become moral animals when we care about others as we do ourselves, and in most eras that wasn’t a problem. Whether in Stone Age tribes or bucolic villages, we lived in the constant presence of people like ourselves, with whom we shared a lifetime of memories and on whom we depended. Accommodating one another was in our obvious self-interest.

...Today, though, we spend much of our lives alone even in a crowd, often insulated by headphones and absorbed in a screen of some kind, whether a laptop, television or phone. In this protective bubble we find it easy to treat the icons on Facebook like the icons on a video game, or the cars on the road like moving images on a screen. We can fill online comment boxes or the space between our cars with language we would never use over a cup of tea, because we can now live in a world free of identity and consequences. As individuals we default to being self-absorbed, and now we have technology that allows us to stay that way.

...For generations my countrymen have handled birth, child-rearing, sickness, old age and death by paying expensive specialists to do it for us, out of view, and we merely show up for a ceremony. In a more traditional age, though, family and next-door neighbours were the ceremony, laying out the body on the kitchen table, gathering around it to drink, mourn and celebrate their life in the world to come.

What made our bus wait for half an hour was not a line of cars, you see, but a line of people. Friends and family, perhaps a thousand of them, marched down a lightless country road on a winter night – for miles, I’m told — carrying the body of their loved one in a wooden box to the church. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they had sawn the box.

This would have been normal a century or two ago in more industrialised countries; today, we can imagine that many people turning out for a celebrity they never met, but not for a neighbour.

The driver and I stood there a long time watching them pass, and I thought the deceased had been a lifelong part of an older and real social network, the one that you don’t leave when you die.