Lucidending: Empathy, Online
In the film "Wit", made for US television network HBO in 2001, professor of English literature Vivian Bearing (played by Emma Thompson) dies of cancer. That process, that agonising deterioration, is the film. The viewer observes Bearing's life in snapshots, intertwined with powerful literary references, while her quizzical monologues explore the subject of death in general - and what it's like to stare it in the face. Her body grows weaker, her thoughts more scattered, until the inevitable moment of passing arrives. It's a crushing experience to watch the 99 minutes which make up this film, but for all of its beauty and literary power, it remains a construct - an object with which we have to engage temporally, like all art forms, in order to comprehend.
However, because of the internet, there are other arenas in which we, as spectators, can more directly interact with the approach of death. In fact, it's happening right now on reddit. One user, going by the name of Lucidending, is preparing to take his own life (legally) and end a years-long battle with cancer which has, he says, spread to his brain and become totally uncurable. 21 hours ago, he published an 'Ask Me Anything' topic on the site with the title "51 hours left to live." At the end of that time, Lucidending claims, he will self-administer a fatal dose of prescribed medication. Already, the conversation surrounding this imminent eventuality is massive. At the time of writing there are nearly 8,000 responses to Lucidending's original AMA post, and there have been many blog posts and tweets mentioning him also.
But that's not all. The most interesting responses to Lucidending have been from reddit users who have offered something. There has been a song, a YouTube video (see below), poetry, photographs, a Google Map of all those leaving messages, and requests for final requests. That is, people asking if there is anything Lucidending would like them to do now or in the time after his death as a tribute. Carefully typing brief responses to such comments on his iPad, Lucidending continues to briefly explain details about his life, without asking for very much, apparently simply soothed by the flood of messages he has received.
What we are looking at here is digital empathy. When I last wrote about death and the internet, I wanted to be pretty sceptical about the value of internet memorials and the meaning of online 'tributes' to dead or dying people. I remain sceptical about these things, but only to a certain extent. Lucidending's case is, first and foremost, an interaction between the person who is dying and people, albeit complete strangers, who choose to engage with that person. This is not just self-indulgent eulogising. While some of the messages for Lucidending are curtly banal (and may be summed up as a collective sigh of "yeah, cancer's a bitch"), there are thousands of creative outpourings and genuine sharings of personal grief. All in all, it's an extraordinary collective statement which has become bigger than Lucidending's individual plight. He is now, whether he planned to be or not, a transcendental symbol of man's struggle against death and despair; he is an unidentified man, but enough of an idea of a man to stimulate some of our deepest emotions. Those rallying, virtually, around his sick-bed are testament to mankind's innate desperation to memorialise loss, even the process of loss, and create things out of it, to make, show, do and share in order to circumvent the finality of death; to say that our culture is bigger than time and mortality, to feel empathy with those who have gone through what our loved ones have gone through; in other words, to unite us as one, immortal being over many, mortal ones.
But blogs in which victims of terminal illnesses document their own demise have been appearing for years. While open, honest and moving, these websites rarely attract the kind of response elicited by Lucidending's simple, short, appearance on reddit. The reason why the response to that appearance has been so overwhelming, is probably the fact that his death is so imminent, and that the opportunity of talking directly to him is so available. We can access him easily - the virtue of the network - and so he is quickly understood, engaged with, and made into a signifier of our feelings.
It's fascinating to me that so many people would be moved to share their humanity by such a simple, if profound, reddit post. If it wasn't for Lucidending's humility and subdued ego, the size of his personality might overtake the thing that his impending death has given rise to online. That is, a giant, multifarious space in which thousands of internet users are imprinting a little piece of themselves, in the hope that they can make the final, painful hours of a fading life more bearable. The value of individual comments can be debated, but the collective expression, the general message, is plain to see. In some ways, as has been discussed elsewhere, the internet replaces our need to commit to the defining and dividing principles of religion, nationality, race, age and level of experience. It taps into the broadest sense of our humanity (as well as our occasional inanity). When it does so, it offers an alternative to simply absorbing the great pronouncements of art and literature; it offers an opportunity to express ourselves, a species at large, dealing with death, calling for peace, aiding the victims of natural disaster, and generally trying to live up to some of the better parts of our reputation. Long may it continue because, at the very least, it's a fascinating read.
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