A discussion question I asked this week in class was “What conspiracy theories do you believe in or enjoy learning about?” The responses were the usual tired stuff: JFK killed by the CIA, faked moon landing, Illuminati, and so on. One mentioned the idea that life is a simulation, and that we’re all programs carrying out code from our programmer. It’s an idea I’ve enjoyed reading about before, from Plato’s Allegory to The Matrix and everywhere in between.
That response made me think of the if-this-then-that programming responses that I’ve encountered over the last weeks.
I used tax software to prepare and file our taxes earlier this month. During part of the process, the program prompted whether significant changes have happened since last year. When I keyed in Allison’s passing, a pop-up window appeared. Its if-this-then-that programming expressed condolences and assured me it could help me file anyway. I was almost offended by the banality of it. I actually stopped the process and waited a couple of days to resume. A coder at some point was told to be sure to provide pop-up condolences as part of the customer service. Was that programming decision itself a reaction to someone offended that the software didn’t sputter regards in a previous iteration? I don’t know which would be worse, but in the moment, I felt like the struggle of the last months was more of an input variable in a simulation than real, weighted reality. It was too stupid and too predictable and too much to deal with.
Related, I realize that I bristle at being called “Matthew” lately because no one calls me that unless it’s a legal business matter. The letters and emails that start “Dear Matthew. . .” often have their own kind of mail-merge sympathy written in. I’ve made a lot of phone calls settling accounts and notifying agencies over the last months. I told a friend that I think I’ve been offered condolences from at least three different continents. I imagine the if-this-then-that on the computer screen of the customer service worker on the other end: “Ah yes Matthew, we at International Conglomerate Incorporated are sorry for your loss.” I recently read David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? It’s a book about loss and tragedy and how to talk about it in a responsible way--especially from a Christian perspective. One of my key takeaways is that it’s often best to not say something. Having nothing to say is where the banality of commercial condolences comes in, I guess.
I have my own if-this-then-that responses that sneak up on me. A couple of weeks ago, I got an email while I was at work that the principal at the kids’ elementary school was retiring. Allison used to work closely with her when she was heavily involved with the PTA. Without realizing it, my first instinct was to get out my phone and text Allison. I’ve done that for years whenever I want to share a bit of news or get a quick reaction. A friend and fellow parent from the elementary school mentioned that she would love to have Allison’s thoughts about it. So would I.
I also wanted to talk with Allison about the two concerts I’ve seen in the last week and a half. Allison didn’t always enjoy going to shows with me, but she always wanted to hear about them. When I would get in late, she would usually wake up for a minute and ask “How was it?” We would follow up the next morning about the show. She always listened with patience as I gushed or complained or tried vainly to recreate in words how it felt and how I felt. The show I saw Tuesday was the first time I’ve been in a sold-out club in over two years. There were fleeting moments when the sound washed over me and the crowd swayed and the room shook that felt almost normal. The quiet in the car after was exceeded by the quiet of home. I wrote to a friend who asked to hear about it. There were components of the experience that felt familiar to my decades of going to shows: I was at a venue I know well, I ran into an old acquaintance, I was annoyed at another concertgoer, the music moved me, then the music ended before I wanted it to. Home always feels quiet after a show. This time moreso.
I’m glad that I went, and I want to continue to see concerts with regularity, but the usual progression of my concert algorithm doesn't function, and there’s a hollowness to the experience that deserves to be written about but can’t be put into words.