Is there anything more goyish than New Year’s resolutions? The resolving mind, after all, is long on hope and short on blueprints; it aspires, in good faith, and it believes that the gusts of change are forever about to blow. Judaism, bless it, is designed differently, asserting that if there’s something that ought to be done at all, there ought to be 93 rabbinic opinions, at least a third of them contradictory, prescribing precisely each step of the process. Had we the benefit of the Tannaim, the great compilers of the Mishnah, still ambling in our midst today, you can be sure that rather than a cheerful “I should work out more in 2018” we would’ve received a new Talmudic tome—Tractate Crossfit, perhaps—detailing precisely how many workouts a week are advised, and which blessing must be recited upon munching on a Kind bar.
And yet, even the most hardened among us feel, come the first week of January, the need to mutter something committing-sounding. Maybe, then, we can resolve this year to abandon our fleeting and modest personal aspirations and instead lend our hearts to one urgent collective call: It’s time to get the hell offline.
Any serious student of the last 20 years knows that feverish calls to curb the rise of the machines have come almost as soon as the first algorithmic animals started roaming the Earth, delivering anything from better search results to beer and pretzels. The disastrous impact Facebook, Google and their ilk are having on the tenets of our democracy have been well documented and hardly need repeating. Besides, the dawn of January isn’t time for talk of sweeping societal woes; it’s time to talk about personal growth, which is why it’s a blessing that this week we’ve been given a morality tale for the age in the smug form of Logan Paul.
To usher out 2017, the 22-year-old YouTube star, propelled by the 3.2 billion views his videos have generated on the popular platform, traveled to Japan’s Aokigahara forest, notorious for being a favorite spot among that nation’s suicides. Dressed like a supersized toddler in a goofy alien-shaped beanie, Paul ambled among the cypresses, soon noticing a lifeless body dangling from a nearby tree.
What happened next has already generated its fair share of mediated outrage, but it bears watching, however uncomfortable and ghoulish the experience. Instead of turning off the cameras, Paul babbles a few profundities like: “Yo, this is crazy”; “this is a first for me”; and “suicide is not a joke.” He also gives us close-ups of the dead man’s clenched hands as well as gruesome long shots of the hanging corpse swaying gently in the breeze. Paul uploaded the video to YouTube on New Year’s Eve; not for a moment did he think it best to keep the footage from his 15 million subscribers.
The furor that followed is understandable but misguided. Logan’s video isn’t an anomaly; it’s an apotheosis, the purest expression of a sensibility forged in the crucibles of millions of tweets and Vine videos and Instagram stories and Facebook posts and the other torrents of solipsism and stupidity that we’ve for some reason sanctified as both cultural touchstones and altars of industry. To watch Paul watching the dead man is to see a soul utterly incapable of empathy—the sole concern of the young social-media star is how the disturbing discovery makes him feel, and how his good cheer is burdened by the inconvenience of stumbling upon something so intractably real as death.
Here’s the most maddening part: Paul isn’t really to blame. An internet celebrity from a young age, he lived out his teenage years on the smartphone screens of his hordes of followers. Adolescence is performative by nature—we all put on acts for the benefit of those around us we hope to impress into friendship or sex or any number of perfectly human necessities. But when the performance is conceived for and distributed to strangers instead, when it becomes a vehicle for ad campaigns for Hanes, Pepsi, and HBO, it ceases to become anything remotely real or meaningful. And millions of us watched, cheered, and strode to emulate Paul’s success, trading in tenderness and compassion and care for the silly, the snarky, the smug, and the sensational.
The fault, then, is not in our social-media stars but in our selves. We are all Logan Paul. But we don’t have to be.
How we choose to assert our independence from the media that blunt our souls is our own business, and the question should occupy much if not most of our emotional bandwidth, to borrow a techie term, from the first week of January onward. Very few of us are geared for a total disconnect — a radical proposition in a wired age. But all of us can, upon reflection, make small adjustments that, almost without us noticing, clear out patches of truth and beauty for us to enjoy away from the digital storms. A digital Sabbath, for example, is one way to apply the wisdom of our fathers and designate one day a week in which we put down the devices of distraction and instead read a book, enjoy a movie, or talk to someone we love without the aid of a screen. Or we may decide, like comedian Aziz Ansari, to purge our phones of social-media applications, keeping the time we spend staring into the abyss to a minimum. Whatever we choose to do, we’ve the ancient wisdom of Judaism to guide us and tell us that good intentions and lofty ideals are hardly enough—it’s the practice that matters, and the path to salvation begins with just one small good deed at a time.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.