I met James in 2008 when I interviewed him for a job.
He was about my age. He had a son about my son’s age. He was recently divorced, too, just like me. He liked politics, Star Trek, old movies and NFL football, and I liked three out of four of those things, too.
It was inevitable that we would become good friends. And for the next few years we developed an awesome working relationship based on mutual respect and shared, nerdy interests. He was a talented writer who worked tirelessly, creating amazing speeches and communications materials about the big issues of the day in the Province of Ontario. He believed that, as he once wrote, “public service is how you change the world.”
A few years later, he moved from Toronto back to London to take a new job. We stayed in touch and we were thrilled when we started working together again in 2018.
Through a Zoom window
During the pandemic, James and I talked every day. We started each morning with a 9:30am Zoom call with the core members of our team, where we collaborated on our work and shared personal stories and observations about everything that was going on. The screen gave us more than a window on each other’s desks – it gave us a window on each other’s lives.
And then, on January 26, 2022, I learned through a social media post that my friend had died.
I had spoken to him a few days earlier after he’d been released from hospital after a bout of bronchitis and COVID. I told him to take it easy and not to rush going back to work. I also told him I loved him and to take care of himself.
Those were the last words I spoke to him.
I learned afterwards that he’d been far sicker than he let on. And that he’d been sick for much longer than I had realized.
So, last week, together with his family and about 60 other people, I memorialized my friend.
And that was it. After 14 years of working together and hanging out together, he was gone.
I have been thinking a lot about love and loss since then. About the ways we are both closer to each other than ever before, and how we are further apart. And about the ways technology skews our perceptions of each other.
Seeing as we are shown
Take social media, for example. The other day one of my friends told me: “you have such a happy baby!” To which I replied: “Yeah, but we don’t post the pictures where she’s crying or throwing a tantrum.” It reminded me of the fact that we only show each other what we want to see on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
In the past few months, James’ social media feed was all about his son’s skateboarding achievements (the kid is a phenomenal skater) and his usual wry observations about the world. There was nothing in his posts that even hinted at the fact that he was unwell.
You would think Zoom would have kept us connected.
I saw my friend every weekday morning for these past two years. But while I had a window into his office, I could only see what was in the frame. Which tells me that while we have all kinds of tools at our disposal for connection, they can be deceptive. As with social media, we only see what we’re shown. I knew what James had for breakfast each morning and what kind of mood he was in, but I never knew how much he was struggling with his health. So it strikes me that, even with Zoom calls, we can hide just as much as we reveal if we so choose.
James liked to quote George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
With all the technology at our disposal, it’s easy to think that fellowship is taking place. But maybe, it isn’t. And maybe we all have to work that much harder to make sure that it is.
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