A Sobering New Year Message
This was supposed to be written and published last month, but the warm grip of the holidays took hold of much of my time. Not that I intended on resisting. On that vein, I hope everyone reading this had a wonderful Christmas, and beckoned 2014 fuelled by many pleasant memories of the previous year.
Despite the quality of the memories made over the last couple of weeks, what will be written here will not be pleasant. Harsh posts have never been easy for me to write, and this one is certainly no exception. But it will be very, very necessary.
Beyond Someone Else’s Shoes
Shortly before my Christmas vacation, the Indonesian advertising industry was shocked over the news of a young copywriter, who fell into a coma and died shortly after working for 30 straight hours that were mostly sustained by excessive amounts of energy drinks. Her passing brought on a slew of reactions posted online from local and international walks of life, the headline hitting particularly hard on those familiar with an agency. This is not an isolated incident, however. Just last year, a PR staff in Beijing, China collapsed and “died at his desk”. It prompted a brief, but strong discussion on the subject of corporate culture, even though the company the late young man was employed under denied overwork as the cause.
A similar forum spurred last December. Many comments were imprinted throughout various social media channels, ranging from mostly incensed words and finger-pointing, to the occasional proposed solution to keep a death like this from ever repeating itself. Agreement on any of these were expressed through “Like”-s and the dissemination of the information across other networks of contacts. It was a knee-jerk reaction, clearly, but a fair one. People needed comfort at a time like this, and for those it hit close to home, the necessity of it was louder.
I spent the first couple days reading these posts through the websites I frequent, trying to grasp the harsh reality of what had transpired. Seeing as it happened near the end of 2013, I couldn’t even begin to imagine the pre-holiday anguish of the many who have survived her. In fact, I’m writing this with much trepidation of inadvertently touching the fresh wounds of anyone associated. But as I read through the views of those who caught on with the news, each additional statement felt like an opportunistic grab at making this unfortunate situation a personal crusade. What initially was a medium for airing grievances on the direction of work-life balance ran horribly off-track and convoluted into a playground competition of comparing battle scars.
Hard is not Relative; Hard is Hard
In the midst of the blame game, I read many posts casting angry words at the figures overseeing her work, be it her Creative Lead or Director, the client-facing departments, or the higher management. The finer details of all that go way beyond my scope, even if some held water. Still, I didn’t feel it was right to resort to feeling particular offence over it all precisely because she was a fellow creative. That would mean branding the mark of Cain to virtually every Account Executive, Manager, and Director out there, which is unfair. The reverse would apply just as much. I also didn’t feel the antipathy towards the energy drink brand was warranted, either. She was doing what she needed to uphold the responsibilities of her job, and one cannot be blamed for their passion.
Many articles have also thoroughly covered health, safety, overtime work regulations, the effects of energy drinks, and the morality of capitalism. Nothing wrong in reminding people to exercise moderation in consuming Kratingdaeng. Health advisories can never be a bad thing. However, I won’t be adding my voice to that pile anymore; there are experts for that. I’m merely going to offer another perspective on a topic I saw had not yet been covered: the sickening side of the culture of validation. Acting like special snowflakes, and needing to document everything for an unnecessary audience to make judgements on the arbitrary standard of so-called “hard”. This affliction is hidden in plain sight, often unspoken, yet may already be symptomatic in all of us.
Funnily enough, all of this reminds me of something I picked up off Ash Beckham’s talk, “Coming Out of Your Closet”, which I watched some months ago. My feelings about TED Talks have changed greatly over the last few years, but Beckham, who wonderfully pointed out that all that closets are “is a hard conversation”, pioneered the following quote, which only seemed fitting:
Sure, I’ll give you a hundred reasons why coming out of my closet was harder than coming out of yours, but here’s the thing: hard is not relative, hard is hard. Who can tell me that explaining to someone you’ve just declared bankruptcy is harder than telling someone you just cheated to them? Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your five-year-old you’re getting a divorce? There is no ‘harder’, there is just ‘hard’. We need to stop ranking our ‘hard’ against everyone else’s ‘hard’, to make us feel better or worse about our closets, and just commiserate on the fact that we all have ‘hard’.
If you can, take the time to watch that talk. It’s good.
It’s enough that each and every single individual reading this deals with plates of varying content. The daily dance of managing it all is nuanced but universal; it is precisely why we can experience emotional resonance to trials and tribulations. Empathy is incredibly important, because its presence in people reminds us that we not alone in feeling it. On the other hand, it becomes negated when bias is involved, particularly in the event of dismissing someone else’s personal stories as “easy” or “light”. Perhaps it is why some feel compelled to exhibit bad days like works of art, uploading vocal and visual evidence of difficulties in case a meaningless snide remark is made about their lack of comment, or going beyond one’s means for just a moment of saved face, or risking one’s own health as an effort to look tortured but industrious. It is a rat-race that easily becomes addicting, and this sort of simple-minded scaling is egotistical, and frankly, insane.
So, Be Gentle
I really hope that despite the frequent topic of her social media updates, the copywriter was projecting a cry for help instead of a social media parade. I am only so, so sorry that the call was answered too late, and can only wish her loved ones the strength to persevere in this difficult time. But all of this made me think a little harder about how we seem to value the curation of our hardships over of focusing on getting through the day. Or, harder yet, where the cultural aspects of all this stops, and the danger begins. With a little more awareness of this imprinted in our minds, maybe — just maybe — we can save a life. It could just as well be our own.