"People speak sometimes about the "bestial" cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to beasts., no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel." – Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
This is a parable about life in our times, life in the new world of messaging, the story of me and of a woman named Diane.
Diane sent me this message late last night, I read it just as I was leaving a restaurant where I was having dinner with friends. I rarely answer messages like this, but this one, I thought, deserved a reply. For the next fifteen minutes as we drove from the restaurant to our home, I decided to try a dialogue. To connect with Diane as one human to other. Sometimes it happens, and it is a wonderful thing.
Why bother? Because I believe in civil dialogue and discourse, and I believe writing and creativity is good and hard and honest work and ought to be respected. I do this on behalf of myself and on everyone who seeks to follow their zeal and live their own life. Free speech demands respect and the ability to listen, without it, there is no safe place to think for any of us, no freedom to be who we want to be.
"I often wonder," Diane wrote, "what it is like to not be employed and to just do anything you like everyday and to be able to pontificate on your blog whenever you feel like it. And some people even send you money out of the clear blue sky. But no, I get up every day and labor hard to provide for my family and have done so for 40 plus years. Maybe you can enlighten the rest of us on how we can live life without having to labor so hard."
So I decided to write back to Diane on the off chance that she was really asking a question and wanted an honest answer. It struck me as a cruel and thoughtless note, but I've learned that on this new media, good people often send cruel and thoughtless messages, it is so easy to do.
Once in a great while, a dialogue is opened up, and I feel good about the prospects for humanity. You have to be prepared for disappointment. There is always the possibility of connection, there is always the possibility of rejection. You will lose much more often than you win, but it is a good and important fight, it is worth fighting for respect and compassion. I hope I never weary of it and stop.
Diane, I wrote, thanks for asking, it feels great to be self-employed and to just do almost everything I like everyday and be able to pontificate on my blog whenever I feel it. I think that is a beautiful way to live and I would urge anyone to try and live the life they want, not the one others tell them they ought to have. But I am not responsible for your life, or for the choices you make.
Some people have sent me money, although not out of the clear blue sky, I have twice asked for help in buying cameras and camera equipment so that I can take photographs and share them. I'm sorry to tell you that I have gotten up every day of my life since I was 17 and labored very hard to provide for my family, and have done so for forty plus years.
I cannot tell you how to have a life without hard labor because I have not had one – writing a book is not a simple thing, neither is writing a blog – but I can tell you the way to love your life is to follow your bliss and your heart and your zeal and do not let anyone take any of those things from you.
A good life is not easy, but it is, in many ways, a choice, not a miracle.
Diane, I wrote, I am sorry you don't consider writing 29 adult books and three children's books work or publishing a blog for eight years work, or running a farm and taking 50,000 photographs work, but it sure feels like labor to me.
I have some good friends who are nurses, like you, few people work harder than they do.
I said I was sorry she resented my life and sorry she hated hers. I've noticed over the years, and after many hateful messages, that people who sent hateful messages often are outraged when they are challenged. It's like they were the ones receiving the hateful messages, they are always the victims.
Diane was not, alas, one of those rare people who write back and apologize for being rude or thoughtless and say what's really bothering them.
"I do hate it," she replied, "when people are condescending when others express their opinions and feelings." She said she was a nurse who loved her work.
In other words, she was saying, why would I dare reply to the suggestion that I am lazy, thieving, greedy and shiftless, windbag. After all, I share my life, aren't I asking for it?
I have been writing onlilne a long time, and I have a good sense now of the people who sent messages, it's a kind of radar, I get about 1,000 a day in various forms and cannot nearly read or acknowledge all of them. Most days, I would never have even seen it. But Diane's message popped right out at me. She said that she loved her life and did good every day.
I believed her for some reason, but I also believe that nobody who lives a life they love and does good sends total strangers, about whom they know absolutely nothing, hateful messages like that. Something is missing in her life for that to happen. I also do not believe she loves her life, or takes much responsibility for how it turned out. I suspect she would love to do what she wanted most of the time and pontificate on a blog. I love it.
But how she makes her money and how hard she works is none of my business, of course, as my life is none of hers.
I'm familiar with this phenomena. It was something that I wrote, that she didn't have the stomach to tell me about. Some blog post I wrote – perhaps the ones about my primary voting this week – triggered this response. You cannot take it personally. A person who does not know you cannot hate you.
They can just be nasty.
What have I learned from my long campaign for a more civil and respectful Internet:
- Most people are good. Given the chance, they will do good.
- It is easy to be thoughtless and cruel on Facebook and e-mail and social media. It costs nothing and takes seconds. You are often far away from your target, messaging is free and by definition, thoughtless, there are no filters or restraints to monitor what goes from your mind to your fingers in micro-seconds. This is the medium of misinterpretation, missed communications, and disconnection.
- Hostility is an integral part of the digital experience, we must be silenced or learn to live with it.
- Our cable news and political culture promotes the idea of argument over conversation, of rage over reason, of cowardice and hiding. If the presidential candidates can do it for months, why can't we do it from the safe confines of our living rooms?
Do not lose heart or become cynical, I tell people.
Diane wrote one angry message, dozens of people sent me lovely ones, talking about my posts, my life, my photos. I acknowledge them also. Hundreds of people sent me $5 and $10 this and last week to help me buy a new camera, something Diane jeered at but which was an extraordinary and quite beautiful experience.
That is the real truth about people, not the damaged psyches who sent angry messages on Facebook. She resents it, I am proud and humbled that anyone would do it. There is that chasm between her life and mine. She finds it incomprehensible, how could she help writing me a note like that?
Diane fled from the brief exchange, as I suspected she would. Since there was no reality or real perception in her message, there was nothing to keep the dialogue going. She could either come to consciousness about what she was doing, or run away. Usually, they run away. And nothing upsets them more than a civil response. For it to work for them, I must be a monster.
I was not able to make a human connection with Diane, I didn't think, and then suddenly, after I wished her a good life and said my wish for her is that she has a good life and never sends another message like that to someone she doesn't know on Facebook or anywhere else. I promise myself all of the time that I will never send a message like that, and never have. I wish you a good life, I said.
Then (I was still riding in the car home from dinner), another message came in:
"Thanks,I've read 10 of your books."
I was surprised, I replied, as the car neared the farmhouse, and Maria looked at me curiously (I do not read hateful messages to Maria):
"You don't think that's hard work? I've written 29 books." And then, I tried once more. I asked her what this dialogue was really about, what prompted it. But I could feel the silence, even riding along in my car with my Iphone open and Maria driving.
But Diane was, I think gone. I did not hear from her again.
Did I make a human connection, did I plant a seed of doubt in her weary mind that this is not the way to talk to other human beings, even anonymously, and over time and space? I don't know. Maybe.
I did feel a connection with her, I like to think that she does do good.
I'm glad I tried.