Living on fire without putting yourself out — and cherishing the heat.

“May you live in interesting times.”

English translation of a purported traditional Chinese curse.
A message is written in graffiti on the campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong
A message is written in graffiti on the campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong, China November 21, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

My good friends! I would like to say hello, once again. For the past three years, I have written a birthday post. A sort of thematic idea that is supposed to encapsulate the idea I would like to live out this year. Small self-experiments just for fun. My fourth one, however, it is very late. My twenty-third birthday was almost a year ago now, with my next birthday now creeping in.

In truth I have been writing and rewriting this simple post with far too much thought, far too much rumination. The more time that goes by, the more heavy the weight of the idea becomes. What I write has to actually matter, to others beyond myself. Because that’s all that actually matters at the end of the day— other people.

The Story & The Storyteller

An uneducated layman such as myself, acting as a reductionist, could say that everything we experience boils down to two things: 1) the Story and 2) other people AKA the Storyteller and Listener. Our seemingly lost ability to change the minds of others is within the emotional, fragile art of the story, and not the facts or science.

For most of human civilization, we have only had the privilege of listening to the storyteller and her story. Rarely have we had the ability of outreach or academics needed to both create and share our own story. You used your voice to orally pass down someone else’s more important story from the past, or maybe later, your printing press to print someone else’s book.

There was a sincere mysticism that alluded the common man when it came to the ability to craft the meaningful and the beautiful. And if a story did come about that displayed too uncomfortable a truth, or questioned something that was fundamental, it was either burned or bloodshed would occur.

The world is on fire, there is somehow a multitude of existential crisis that face us. There is an exponential amount of information that overstimulates those who are already exhausted from having to live their local, labour-intensive lives. A consequence and simple solution to this uncomfortable information has been an anxiety that grows into distrust and paranoia in both what’s being presented and who is presenting it.

Our capability to communicate and understand is unprecedented, and yet it feels paradoxically worse. For the past twenty years, a great experiment has been ongoing — no longer would the average person have to just be content with being the Listener, they could in fact, with a relatively inexpensive electronic, have the ability to share their own story to anybody else that had one.

The bleeding-heart idealistic notion that anybody could share their voice on an equal platform has already, in just a short amount of time, failed. There is no platform, no audience, unless you pay — unless you sacrifice. The corporate oligopoly has AstroTurf’d the fields of the internet before anything else had the time to flourish.

If you’d like to share your story with the world, you have to first agree to sit yourself on one of the few platforms. You agree to an impossibly dense terms of service, giving away your data and personhood for free.

You agree to constant notifications that will take your attention away from other things without you even noticing, notifications that will be the first thing you see when you wake up every single day of your life.

You agree to having a constant stream of information appear on a dashboard or feed that you do not have any direct control over. A stream of information — specifically engineered by algorithms we no longer comprehend— designed to make you feel outraged or upset in order to keep you on the platform as long as possible as a Listener, not as a Storyteller.

Perhaps it’s cynical to say, but our ability to tell our story feels more like a convenient illusion that has been specifically created in order to keep real action from taking place. Your ability to hear and witness the stories of others is outside of your control, and is carefully curated by only a handful of people.

Art for Awkward and Lonely People
Qianqian Ye

This piece is not intended to be an eye-opening criticism on the ever-present corporatism and neoliberalism that has successfully penetrated the wild west of the Internet and transformed it into an addictive, political platform for monetary gain. Nothing I could say on that matter hasn’t already been said more eloquently by others. My intention is much more personal and perhaps more morbid in nature, with the idea being the title itself:

What if I die without seeing you again?

I sincerely mean it when I say that the bombardment of things that claim they require our attention, while simultaneously trying to maintain our own personal lives makes it nearly impossible to successfully maintain face-to-face relationships with people that aren’t our co-workers or colleagues, as work seems to be the only limited glue that can still bind us together.

We have so many people already that need to be balanced like porcelain plates stacked to the ceiling. Just as fragile. Just as precious. And if one falls, they all fall.

And there’s so much on everyone’s plate, that it has become effortlessly easy to become happy enough just seeing the person through whatever story they tell on these platforms.

So what happens if, just because plans never quite work out, just because people naturally drift away, just because things change, I die without seeing you again?

There are a lot of people that I haven’t seen for a few years, now. Both friends and family. People that I think about often and that mean a lot to me. But because of one reason or another, I haven’t seen them face-to-face, or listened to their voice in the same room, or held their hand with mine.

And maybe, just because of how things are, it’ll never happen again.

No matter how dark or anxiety-inducing such a thought exercise is as the one above, I believe that they are a necessity in order for us to sincerely detach from the information treadmill that we aren’t even aware we’re running, if only just for a moment.

The platforms we use seem to be designed to perpetuate the idea of telling our story as a way to compete with others, instead of actually caring about one another lovingly.

The world is on fire, you probably feel like you’re on fire too. A million things to worry about, a million things that you need to do. Always on the brink of falling apart. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the fantasy of running away from it all — to put the fire out — but that’s what it is, just a fantasy. The only solace I can give you is that I’m on fire, too — maybe we can warm each other up?