Something remarkable happened this week: One human being used the Internet to reach out to another human being. Not in 140 characters or less, not as a like on Facebook or a check-in on Foursquare or a pixel on Farmville; not on some blog for the amusement of others. Instead, the human being in question, comedian Chris Gethard, defied the Internet’s form and function by writing a 6,778 word reply, intimate and sincere, to an anonymous fan who expressed an interest in suicide. As we are in the midst of the Days of Awe—the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in which we’re called to introspection and repentance—Gethard’s act of compassion can serve as a reminder that the most ancient virtues trump even the most modern of technologies.
The story began last week, when Gethard received a question from a fan via the microblogging service Tumblr. As an author and a comedian—he is a member of the sterling comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade and has his own show on New York’s public access television—Gethard gets fan queries all the time. But this one was different.
“I know you’ve talked about bout depression and anxiety issues before,” wrote Anonymous, “and if you don’t answer this cause it’s a complete downer I understand but I’m curious if you ever had suicidal thoughts. I admire you and your show and have just been in a really bad place lately. I used to see your show as the last thing I had to look forward to but I haven’t even been back for months and can’t even bring myself out the door to get there without panicking. I’d appreciate any advice really.”
What to do with a plea like this? Anonymous, after all, could just as easily be a merry prankster as a real fan in distress. And moreover Tumblr, used mainly to share funny photos or quick quips, is hardly the platform for nuanced advice on mental health, nor are comedians the ones best suited to dispense such advice. Gethard could have ignored his digital Werther, or he could have adhered to the sensibilities of the Internet and posted a funny photo or a bit of pithy pep. He did neither.
“I want you to know I saw your message about thirty seconds ago and I’m already writing this,” Gethard wrote. He was swamped with errands, he explained, and doubted that a public blog was the best place to address such matters, but as he had no other way of reaching Anonymous, he decided to take the risk. “I care about you very deeply,” he wrote, “me personally, I care about you. And I don’t even know who you are. You sent your message in anonymously and I can’t presume to know who sent it. But you are a person and you’re in a lot of pain and you need help, and as another human who has been in at least similar pain, I want you to know—I care so much about you. If it turns out that you’re already one of my best friends in the world, I care about you. If you’re someone I’ve literally never interacted with in any way before this, I care about you. You are a person and you’re in pain and that makes me care.”
On the Internet, where snark is so often king, such sentiments are rare. But what happened next was even rarer. Merely telling his nameless fan not to hurt himself, Gethard realized, would achieve very little. The fan, after all, had approached Gethard because he had sensed that the comedian was himself no stranger to sadness; what he wanted was empathy, not a public service announcement. And so, Gethard opened up.
He wrote about the time, back in the eighth grade, when he was bullied and hated his life so much that he brought a Bic razor to school and planned to cut himself and make his tormenters and teachers feel guilty. He wrote about the time, back in college, when he had a panic attack so bad he couldn’t even leave his room and did nothing but play his small Casio organ in the dark and, eventually, took a pocket knife he had found and cut his own arm until a roommate walked in and calmed him down and made him laugh. And he talked about that one time when he crashed his car into a pick-up truck, a story he hadn’t dared—to this day—to share even with his parents and siblings. He still wasn’t sure if it had been an accident, he wrote, or if something dark inside commanded him to end it all that day by driving into traffic. Either way, being a comedian, Gethard segued from his own thoughts of self-immolation to an intricate and hilarious set piece, noting that the pick-up truck was driven by a burly black man, that said black man rushed over to Gethard’s totaled car and threatened to beat him up, and that a local neighbor rushed over and intervened, saving the already wounded Gethard a further beating. When Gethard thanked the neighbor, the man nodded his head. “It’s OK,” the neighbor said. “There’s no way I was going to let a nigger beat up a white kid.”
That, Gethard wrote, just made him more depressed. Not only was his life saved, but it was saved by a racist who had only stepped up because he hated blacks. Talk about messed-up karma.
If the move from heartfelt to funny felt jarring, Gethard wrote, that was exactly the point. Years later, he reassured his fan, you only remember the funny stuff. The point is to overcome, to be strong enough, to get help, to ride out the darkness and once again find joy.
If you’re reading this story and thinking to yourself that what Gethard did was unremarkable, that it was just basic decency or common sense, you’re right. And that’s just the marvel: Having entrusted so much of our communication to algorithms, it takes an ordinary act of empathy to remind us how much we stand to lose. While the digital technologies that aggressively compete for our attentions and our funds have their merits, we must recognize them for what they are, namely databases that can only thrive if they reduce each of us to several uncomplicated lines of code noting favorite bands, schools attended, or any other bit of information that could easily be contained in bullet point form.
And the more accustomed we grow to thinking like a database, the less human we turn. “The last defense of every Facebook addict,” the novelist Zadie Smith wrote in the New York Review of Books, “is: but it helps me keep in contact with people who are far away! Well, e-mail and Skype do that, too, and they have the added advantage of not forcing you to interface with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg—but, well, you know. We all know. If we really wanted to write to these faraway people, or see them, we would. What we actually want to do is the bare minimum, just like any nineteen-year-old college boy who’d rather be doing something else, or nothing.”
We should be aware of this temptation yearlong, but particularly this week, as the Book of Life is still open and our fates still not sealed. While Judaism has many rituals that facilitate our asking for forgiveness from the Lord, it has almost none to assist us in asking for forgiveness from each other. That’s because the ancient religion realizes, like Elton John, that sorry seems to be the hardest word: To say it to God we fast and pray, but to say it to each other we have to do something even harder, which is to just look each other in the eye, swallow hard, and be frank.
Some pious Jews are so terrified of failing in this task that they make a point of hardly speaking during the Days of Awe, as anything they say may inadvertently cause offense and may be used against them in the heavenly court. Gethard’s approach was more modern, and easier to follow: Ignoring everything the Internet was designed to do, he did exactly what a human being was designed to do. He was introspective, candid, and empathic. I’ve no idea if he helped save that fan’s life, but he’s helped make ours richer.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.