Oblivion and the Internet

I wasn’t going to write this piece. I thought about it, considered writing and then stopped. Lest I should bloviate as per usual or write a sickeningly grim or maudlin column.

But this past week, I experienced a shocking loss — not in the family, but close enough. Suffice it to say this person meant a lot to me, and I will never be able to process that he is gone.

It was his loss that pushed me to write this column. Not that I think I’m doing anything eleemosynary; it just reminded me why I wanted to write this in the first place. It reminds me that sometimes I’m not indulging garrulous proclivities; I’m talking about things that mean something.

I live with the fear of loss. When I go to a movie I am shaken by the understanding that it will eventually end. When Friday rolls around, I can’t stop dreading Monday. When I leave campus for summer vacation, I try not to think about August. When I’m around family members, I try to forget that one day I won’t have them anymore. But sometimes I just can’t.

I’m not one to expose my vulnerabilities often. But, perforce, I do so here.

On July 1st I looked at my phone calendar and thought to myself “Summer’s almost over.” In retrospect, it was an absurd thought, considering just how much time I had left, but nonetheless, in the moment I was unaware and I had to cope. I had to make myself forget that summer would end.

So I tried spending more time online. I leaned on the community I mentioned in my last column. It seemed fine, for a time, until it became wholly inadequate.

Outside of work, I played video games, for the first time in years. It seemed fine, for a time, until it became wholly inadequate.

I became just another habitué at the local park, running laps around the pond. This, I found, was the most cathartic of all my options. Running 1.2 miles in May turned into 7 miles in July, and it felt good. My flat feet didn’t, but that’s another story. It seemed fine, for a time, until it became wholly inadequate.

Until I simply resorted, in the final week of break, to sulking — likely the worst thing I could have done. I worked on some summer homework, prepared to return to school, and packed my things.

All summer, no matter what I did, I was haunted by the reminder that my break would end. One day at work, as I stood waiting for the dumbwaiter to reach my floor, carrying with it food for hospital patients I was serving, I found myself saying, “You know, at some point, the dumbwaiter’s journey will end and it will be here, just as your break will end and you’ll be back at school.” I could barely enjoy my time off.

I don’t want to think like that. I don’t want a filmgoing experience to be marred by negative thoughts. I don’t want a weekend to be made less enjoyable, a summer vacation filled with sadness. I don’t want to live life crippled by the fear of loss.

The Internet isn’t a friend. It isn’t a support system. It truly isn’t anything more than fiber-optic cables.

Here’s where the potentially maudlin part comes into play: I cannot help but make the cheesiest of all cheesy references now. I am so sorry; it seems inevitable. Last summer, I went to see The Fault in Our Stars with my girlfriend. Did I cry more than she did? I won’t answer that. But one thing stuck with me. At the beginning of the movie, Augustus shares his greatest fear: oblivion. And I agree. What could be more frightening than the inevitable realization that one day everything and everyone—including you and I—will be gone, every trace of our existence rendered space dust? It’s not scary to me in an existential sense—been there, done that. Life can be given meaning. Oblivion is scary to me because it’s inescapable. Everything will be lost.

(Less successful, by the way, was the movie adaptation of Paper Towns, which was simply fine. Cara Delevingne is so damn charming, though.)

I try to conquer my fear of oblivion, but it follows me wherever I go. In my happiest moments, it taps me on the shoulder and reminds me that there are only 20 minutes left in the movie, that there are only two days in the weekend, that it’s July and school will start before I know it. Should I watch TV with a loved one? Will I regret not doing so one day when they’re gone? The morbidity is undeniable.

I don’t know if this is a new feeling or not. I can’t seem to recall a point before college when I felt so crippled by it. Perhaps it is a result of a long-distance relationship and my desire to get to a point where I can settle down. Perhaps I’m more homesick than I realize or I miss my family more than I would admit. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that my attempt to conquer the fear with the use of the Internet failed. I thought I could lean on the support of an anonymous online community, but I couldn’t. I thought I might feel better if I spent some time taking a couple of Buzzfeed quizzes. I didn’t. Any attempt to find solace in the Internet just felt empty.

The Internet isn’t a friend. It isn’t a support system. It truly isn’t anything more than fiber-optic cables. So why do we try so hard to hide behind computer monitors? How can that cure our sorrows? It can’t. It’s no panacea.

I’m back at school, and for once I’m not fearing oblivion. I’m not fearing loss or the end of anything. And it’s refreshing. But losses like the one I experienced a few days ago remind me why I am afraid. My only recourse, in the aftermath of the death, was to text friends back home. How sorely inadequate a solution it was. I didn’t feel connected; I just felt cut off. I felt alienated and alone. I struggled to process what had happened, hoping that iMessage could help me, but it didn’t. The funeral is coming up, but I won’t be there. I’ll be in class, hoping that afterwards I can feel some closeness to the people mourning back home, but I know I’ll feel distant. The Internet can’t bring me any closer. It can’t bring anyone back to life or make death any easier to swallow. The digital archives we leave behind will only ever be empty reminders of lives that have passed, taken down once Facebook decides to do some spring cleaning.

I know that the Internet cannot and will not save us from oblivion. That’s not what scares me. I’m scared because I know that nothing will.

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