I’ve finally hit that point where what’s left of my social life is dominated by weddings, baptisms and funerals. These kinds of milestones don’t feature all that much in the years leading up to your twenties, and after your forties or fifties, it’s the funerals that begin to predominate. But in your thirties, you’re almost constantly exposed to, if not actually immersed in, the most defining moments of the cycle of existence: births and deaths; endings and beginnings.
Of course, living in an era of hyperconnectivity only amplifies the experience. Just a few decades ago, people moved in small circles defined almost entirely by family, neighbors and colleagues. When something happened to someone, it happened with the irregularity of a true event. These days, it’s not rare for someone to have at least a thousand “friends” on Facebook, and if even only a fraction of these friends got married or gave birth or suffered a death at any given period in time, it would still be enough to leave one with the overwhelming impression that there’s just too much that’s going on. The significance of events recedes—what’s left is an endless torrent of constantly updating phenomena, with posts on gourmet meals or wedding revelries jostling with images of fetal ultrasounds and travel escapades.
It used to be that followers of the Dharma traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism would meditate in charnel grounds—above-ground sites where corpses were left to decompose uncovered—as a means of profoundly confronting the impermanence of existence. Now, we just need to log on to Facebook and stare at the ever-changing stream on our home page wall to get that, yes, nothing stays the same. If you stare too long, you sink into a nihilistic haze that trivializes all the shifting phenomena, and then to extricate yourself from its discomfiting claws, you indulge in a narcissistic spree of selfie-posting because few other things besides the ego possesses such reassuring significance.
At the end of the day, although the gender insensitive cliché “no man is an island” is true, I doubt that the corollary “every man is an archipelago” holds true as well. Our ability to maintain a healthy perspective of what’s momentous and what’s not depends on a certain amount of tribalism. The magnitude of our concern for another reflects the depth of our affinity, and for better or for worse, we can only love a few. For the rest of our supposed friends on Facebook, let’s do what we can with the generous kindness of “likes” (or the patient forbearance of silence).