If you are feeling down about the number of responses that you get to your Facebook posts, simply announcing that you have had cancer or some other life threatening disease, for example one that requires a stem cell transplant, is a sure-fire way to up your likes. It worked like a charm for me! Seriously, when I went public on Facebook the outpouring of well-wishes was enormous. And subsequent photos (in which I am starting to look better, I dare say) have garnered far more than the historic average of likes for me. And then there’s the excessive flattery that you really want to believe. It’s a good example of one the very good roles that social media can play. There are so many people that we care about who are not directly in our lives, but we maintain a thread to them via social media, hearing about mostly the good things, but occasionally about the bad too. Prior to Facebook, these friends would rise to the surface of my thoughts from time to time, but most of the time images of them slumbered just below the surface of my consciousness.
If telling people that you have a life threatening disease that requires a risky medical procedure is difficult, appearing before them afterwards in relatively decent shape is truly wonderful. When close friends first came to the house after I returned from the hospital, I could see the sparkle in their eyes, evidence of the worry they had experienced, the love they felt, and the wonder they now had. “He’s alive; he made it!” Recently at the encouragement of a dear colleague, BF and I attended a work related BBQ where people saw me for the first time since before I had gone into the hospital. Because of the haphazard way in which I had told people what was going on with me, many had only heard it second hand, and perhaps didn’t even have an accurate account of it all. When I walked in I was overwhelmed by the expressions of love and joy. So many faces looking in wonder. “He walks! Wow, he looks pretty good for what he’s been through, really, don’t you think.” So many handshakes and hugs, and germs! (It was my first appearance in a large group without wearing the surgical mask.)
There is something strange but lovely in realizing that so many people have been worried. It has taken being in front of people, being seen by them, and recognizing that I am being seen by them to make me fully appreciate this fact. Imagining it was not really enough. It took seeing it in people’s responses to me. Jean Paul Sartre makes a lot of these kinds of experiences in his discussion of “The Look.” It’s a claim with a Hegelian lineage, but he contends that we come to understand ourselves as persons, especially in moments of shame and pride but presumably not only such experiences, by experiencing others seeing us as persons. In a characteristic bit of a flourish, he claims: “I am for myself only as I am a pure reference to the Other.”
I’ve made no secret of my fondness for John Donne’s Meditation XVII. Experiences in which we come to understand ourselves through others give a special meaning to the claim of not being an island. After those kinds of experiences it’s hard to dismiss the claim as a piece of sentimentalism. The experiences need not necessarily be pleasant ones; Sartre is focused particularly on shame, for example. But they certainly can be, and they have been for me when I’ve seen the wonder and joy in the eyes of my friends and colleagues.