It was a clear winter morning. A slight breeze danced across the plaza, sending a shiver down his spine. He made his way across the granite pavers and settled near the center of the square. He set down his and began to unpack. Boxes of salt. A thermos. A cassette deck. Each one arranged meticulously around him.
As he began, no one noticed the solitary man pouring salt on the ground, slowly forming the words to a single message. People gathered as he finished the first line, which was laid out in neat block script two feet high.
THE GREATEST WEAPON
He worked silently, ignoring the cajoling of the growing crowd. He smiled at their whispered questions and quickened his pace, knowing that he would not have much time before the authorities arrived and asked questions of their own.
As he finished the first line, the wind had picked up and blurred the words, pushing the granules of salt across the plaza, as if to spread the message.
Before he began the next line, he produced a tape from his jacket, loaded the cassette deck, and pressed the "play" button. The speakers strained to broadcast the message, which rang out in a clear, near-monotone, unsettling the crowd.
I've asked you all here today to experience this 'performance' because we as humans have lost what we understand as our connection to each other. We claim that the internet and technology have made us more connected. That twenty-four hour news should keep us perpetually informed. That everything should be hyper-connected in modern society. We reap the benefits of these tools, but at what cost? This hyper-connectivity has created behaviors that promote isolation and insulation. Whole families that bask in the blue glow of their smartphones instead of talking. People who avoid speaking face-to-face out fear for 'real' reality.
What are we if not social animals? We define ourselves through body language and intonation filled with subtlety and implied understanding. Instead, we choose to collapse all of what that is into zeroes and ones, strings of 140 characters or less, digitally-altered profiles images, memes, and hashtags. We choose to reject reality, creating false selves to share with others who do the same. We put ourselves under perpetual scrutiny, allowing every intimate aspect of our lives be shared with corporations, the government, and even each other. For what purpose? To be better consumers, citizens, and companions? To squeeze every last drop of mystery our of our connection to each other?
That is not what human connectivity is.
The cassette deck squealed to a stop as he finished the second line. Fumbling to get it started again, he basked in the irony of being filmed by dozens of camera phones and the hypocrisy of using that very medium to spread his message.
IS THE HUMAN SOUL
He started the final line as the cassette deck sputtered back to life, pacing himself to the words.
It is sharing real, actual time with real, actual physical, emotional individuals. It is learning about others as you learn about yourself. It is mystery and frustration and joy. It is knowing that others have you in their hearts and minds. It is sharing all that you know and care about with everyone around you: positive, negative, or fantastical. It is freedom of oppression in all of its forms and the passion to fight that oppression for those who cannot. It is food on your table. It is the community around you, as imperfect as it might be.
So take this moment to turn off your phones and look at the people around you and recognize the connection that you all share by being here today. Know that I will be a part of your lives for as long as you live.
What do I get out of this? What great artistic impression or social change do I expect? Nothing. The only satisfaction that get is knowing deep in the recesses of my mind that, for the first time in my life, that I... that WE are not alone.
As the last words sputtered out of the cassette deck, he had finished the final line and drawn a wide circle around himself. He emptied his pockets in a neat line at the edge of the circle, laying out his keys, wallet, and pocket change.
He sat cross-legged in the center of the circle and opened his thermos. Pouring the contents over his head, he smiled at the crowd, opened his lighter, and set himself ablaze. Members of the crowd rushed in, but the combination of fuel and accelerants in his clothes consumed him with terrifying speed.
The heat scorched and cracked the stone beneath him and that mark became the punctuation of his final message.