One mental exercise I like to play with my students every so often is to ask them to consider the plight of human existence in the form of this hypothetical question: How many people living in the world, right now, are able to reasonably enjoy FDR’s “Four Freedoms”—of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear? The answers vary; one quick Google search lists a global journalism blog which claims that only 14% of the world enjoys a free press (and depending on how you feel about FOX News, that number can shift a little). If we use that ballpark statistic as a guide, and accept the premise that a free press lies at the heart of the Four Freedoms, then the kids in my class can logically assume the number is small. Sometimes I’ll expand the question and ask them to think about how many people throughout all of history have lived with that kind of potential for happiness: Not surprisingly, the number drops further.
When I turned 46 yesterday, I could have focused on the year I’d just experienced: thinking about how lucky I am to live in a time in human history where two medical problems were resolved thanks to a pair of surgeries. After all—in another point I love to make to my students—had all of this happened to me a hundred years ago, I’d be dead…period. After my mom’s passing last month, I could have also chosen to focus on how little sand we all have in our respective hourglasses. Mom was only 64, and even if I up my own number to the census average…I can do that kind of math. I do think about those things, of course. Right now, I think about them all the time. Maybe over the course of the next few years, I’ll ponder all of it a little less, but I doubt I will look at the world again through the same lens I’d used for most of my life.
But on my 46th birthday I actually found myself tossing around a completely different idea. Yesterday wasn’t the first birthday where the wonder we call Facebook “blew up” with congratulations and well-wishes. Honestly, for all the public dissing we all love to say about the supposedly mind-crippling social media website, the fact is that many of us keep going back to it…especially on our birthdays. Yesterday’s digital explosion, however, resonated differently than before. As I read everything from the cursory “Happy Birthday” to the occasionally longer, more personal commentary, I kept returning to this idea of the blessed life.
What I mean by that is this: Many of us operate under this notion that we have a small handful of “true friends,” and the rest are just “acquaintances.” Facebook (and technology in general) changes that, however. I may not hang out with my old college friend Walter, and we could argue that we have both changed and have even perhaps grown apart. Certainly in the years before social media, we had each moved on with our lives. I know by the time I signed on to Zuckerberg’s master creation in 2009, I had changed dramatically in the 21 years that had passed since he and I traveled on our weekly commutes to and from campus. Despite those years, and all the transformations which ensued from them, Facebook reconnected us. Once connected, we quickly became the friends we always were. And technology has connected me with hundreds of others as well: other high school friends, college buddies, and so many former students.
What I realized as a scanned my timeline and read many incoming messages, tweets, and texts from still more people is that I don’t have acquaintances. I have friends, and I have a lot of them. We may not have spoken in person for years, and both life experiences and biology may have changed us a great deal in that time. I may not even recognize you when we next meet (that actually happened with a former student recently), but once the veneer of time is removed, whatever was there when we palled around and/or worked together still lives.
I think that the next time I toss out the Four Freedoms exercise with my students, I’m going to add one more point: Not only are we lucky to enjoy them fully, we get to do so with all the people who’ve made experiencing those freedoms so meaningful. And thanks to modern technology, those friends can include everyone.
To all my friends, thank you for your kind birthday wishes.