I met some people along the way,
Some of them split, some of them stay,
Some of them walk, some walk on by,
I’ve got a few friends I’ll love till I die.
From all of these people I’ve tried to learn,
Some of them shine, some of them burn,
Some of them rise, some of them fall,
But good or bad, I’ve known them all.
–Bouncing Souls, “True Believers”
A bit over a year ago, a friend of mine fell down a flight of concrete steps and cracked his skull, and ended up in a coma in the hospital for a couple of weeks. I live 1500 miles away and am not close with his family, so I had to wait on infrequent facebook updates to get shared around mutual friends and eventually show up in my timeline to follow how he was doing. The exact ins and outs of what happened, I still don’t know.
It’s weird, being deeply worried about a friend that nobody else in your local area knows. There was an extra layer of inexplicability with Bill, because one of the defining struggles of his life thus far has been drug addiction, and it’s almost impossible to talk about him without it coming up (for example, in this situation, I don’t know the answer to what made him fall, but alcohol would be a reasonable guess at an aggravating factor). It’s effected his employment, his criminal record, his education and who he hangs out with. But even though I’m friends with this addict, somehow, his using has never come between us. We don’t talk about it, and on the rare occasions when we do, he’s the one to bring it up. I’m sure the distance helps. And (either by his choice or by virtue of said distance), I’ve never caught the fallout of addict behavior that makes loving addicts so hard and complicated. He’s never borrowed money from me he didn’t return, never stolen from me, never shown up blasted on my porch at 2am needing a place to crash, never tried to store illegal materials in my home. The only thing that’s happened is that once his PO made him take a surprise drug test at the same time that he was supposed to be getting me into a show, and when that happened, he scrambled around until he found a band member to get me in instead. Our friendship has managed to be remarkably uncomplicated over the years, and it’s all the more valuable to me for that. Bill has always been stand up with me. Maybe he’s not with everyone, but he is with me. And it bothers me that, if he dies, I won’t know how to explain how important he is to me–even though he is an addict, even though we only talk once a year or so. His official obituary will probably be something like, “Bill died from complications/got jumped in a bad neighborhood/succumbed to alcohol poisoning. He worked as a cafeteria worker at a local school, and has no wife or kids.” And nobody will miss him, because nobody will know the first thing about him that makes him important to me. That make him worth knowing. Nobody else cares that when I was just a random kid standing next to him in line at a show, he made friends with me. Nobody will write about his generosity, or his general good heart, or how I always feel like he’d be willing to protect me from all comers. Nobody will write about how goddamn funny he is (sometimes unintentionally so) or how he’s one of those guys that always has a story to tell. He’ll just be another dead junkie in the gutter, and his obituary another article on which I should not read the comments, because they’ll be full of people who think they know what they’re talking about but really don’t know the first thing.
I had exactly that experience about a month later, actually, when a girl I know got murdered in Phoenix. She was 17 years old and (as news articles noted at the time) had a history of mental illness and runaway behavior. She was adopted out of an abusive situation as a toddler, along with her older brother and sister, but was never really able to leave it behind, and yeah, grew up to exhibit a lot of behaviors that are really common in at-risk teenagers. The troubles that threatened to swallow her were really obvious to anyone who knew her for more than ten minutes. I wasn’t involved in her day-to-day life, but I remember thinking, if we can just get her past puberty, and her body hormones and chemicals settle a little, she’ll be able to tackle the really hard stuff. She can do that. She was a stubborn fucking kid, and I thought that, in a few years and with her stubborn pointed in the right direction, it would’ve started to serve her, instead of getting in her way. There were so many people hoping for that kid, and pulling for that kid. I said that if you knew her for ten minutes, you could see some of her problematic behaviors. But if you knew her for five, you could also see the things that would get her through: how fiercely protective she was of herself and her siblings. The way her whole face softened when she smiled. The way she’d hang out on the edges of groups, assessing them before slowly wading in. The line she walked between being utterly guarded and surprisingly trusting. The steps she was taking towards self-care and self-awareness. This was a special fucking kid, you guys. And one person (or small group of people) decided he could ruin it, had it in his power to cancel all that out, wrecked our hopeful house of cards and left her beaten in an alley. He thought he knew better than us what mattered, and Brianna wasn’t anywhere on his list. Afterwards, trying to find information, I made the mistake of reading the comments (local news did several articles about her, because the police were in need of leads or information), which were full of people who always knew exactly how Brianna would end up, even though they never knew her, because the label “adopted out of foster care” or “runaway” told them everything that they thought they needed to know.
I wish I could say it didn’t bother me, these people not knowing but passing judgment anyway. But it does. I want them to know how she smiled and how she loved her brother and sister. I want them to know how much she cared for the family dogs. Or, at least, I want the peanut gallery to be aware that it knows nothing. But there’s no way to accomplish this, so, best just not read the comments.
Have you been listening to the second season of Serial? I’ve been listening to the second season of Serial, which this year is covering Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and his imprisonment (and eventual release) by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I didn’t follow his story closely when he was released and all the media kerfuffle happened about whether or not he was a traitor and whether he should’ve been rescued at all, or left to rot in a cage in Pakistan. I didn’t follow it closely, but I remember every talking head on cable news and Twitter having an opinion (as they are paid to do, admittedly). And I wonder, did they follow it more closely than me? Did they know he was kept in a cage, beaten? Did they know he escaped? Did they know he had diarrhea for months, and no toilet, and no toilet paper? Did they know he was kept in solitary confinement for years, surrounded by people that he couldn’t talk to because they didn’t speak English? Maybe they did; maybe I’m the last one aboard this knowledge train. And maybe knowing the details of his capture shouldn’t be allowed to muddy the waters of judging whether or not he committed treason (or something) when he walked off his army base. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does for me. It complicates things. There’s a difference between some guy I don’t know walking off an army base and Bowe Bergdahl, Person. It at least makes me less likely to expend my energy on trying to figure out what the army should do with him (there are many good reasons why that is not my job, and why I should not pretend that it is by voicing an opinion on the internet or anywhere else). I would be a terrible criminal court judge, never feeling like I have enough information about a person to be able to, in good conscience, send them to prison and blow up their lives (I know, I know. They blew up their own lives. This, again, is why I’m not a criminal lawyer).
One of the great lies about the information age is that we can know everything. And we can, most assuredly, know many many things. We have recorded an astronomical, mind-boggling amount of information and facts and reflections and thoughts into our many data-holding mechanisms. Our species’ ability to store information outside of the currently living, single generation is perhaps our single greatest evolutionary gift. But the thing that we forget, while we’re drowning under all this information, is how little we know. About ourselves, about each other. About people on the internet whose names we barely know, and whose existence we’re only aware of because we scanned their obituaries. I just think we need to be careful about thinking we know anything about anyone. For years, I’ve thought of people’s lives and their effect on the world as constellations. Sparkling ephemera of connections and people and jobs and hugs and attitudes and feelings, which aren’t patterns in and of themselves, but where patterns can be inferred without much trouble. We can never know the true shape of our constellation that other people see. But there’s another, even better way of looking at it. Earlier today, I was listening to the Moth podcast, and one of the storytellers was Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier and author of the memoir A Long Way Gone and the novel Radiance of Tomorrow, and he said this about his transition from child to child soldier:
“I did not realize that a year later, I would be one of those same people, one of these same young men that I was seeing; that I would be one of these people going around and starting a different kind of narrative in the library of my own mind. But not only that, I grew up in a place where we also believe that when an older person dies, a library is destroyed, or burned. And now we were going around, destroying the very same knowledge, the source of knowledge, that could add to our narratives. And we didn’t know what kind of library we were creating. And worst of all, we were destroying a source of knowledge that, perhaps, could help us understand how our narratives could actually pan out.”