Tom Petty, Las Vegas victims and #AppreciationMonth
In what the Los Angeles Times is calling legendary musician Tom Petty's final interview, Petty expresses some sadness that his hard-working band had been insufficiently appreciated. “This has been that big slap on the back we never got,” Petty told interviewer Randy Lewis after three sold-out nights at the Hollywood Bowl. The rock legend would add that being a musician is "lonely work."
Mere days later, Petty would be dead. After being found in a state of cardiac arrest, Petty clung to life on a respirator for hours as several news organizations prematurely announced his death. While the musician was still barely alive, the Internet was suddenly saturated with universal appreciation for Petty and his life's work. All races, colors and political persuasions gathered together to fete the musical genius, thinking prematurely he was gone forever.
But what if Petty had miraculously recovered? What if he had awakened to hear the universal acclaim he was garnering, and how he had changed peoples' lives? It's crazy to think that one of the most beloved musical figures in American history just days before his death still felt underappreciated — why were we not telling him we loved him all along? (As it happens, being able to attend my own funeral is a secret dream of mine, as I vow to haunt those who don't show an adequate amount of grief.)
In a large way, Petty's untimely death exposed a gaping dichotomy in modern discourse: We reward taking people down, until someone dies, at which point we all unite and crawl all over one another to offer the most effusive praise.
Spend any time on the Internet, and you'll notice that online interactions largely involve the art of the well-timed burn. Reflective of the times, America elected a president that essentially rose to fame as an insult comic, verbally lacerating political opponents, immigrants and war heroes. When Donald Trump mocked John McCain for being captured in Vietnam or suggested Megyn Kelly was mean to him because of her menstrual cycle, it made anonymous Twitter trolls cackle with delight. The eventual most powerful man in the world knew their club's secret password.
Yet on the opposite end, there are notable people who we only fully appreciate when their names scroll through our social media feeds following their passing. Last week, Monty Hall died at age 96, leaving a legacy that changed entertainment forever; yet after the spike of memorials, he will once again just become another Wikipedia page for the archives. Let us all hope someone regularly let Hall know how much he meant to them even after his star had faded.
On a more somber note, there's no better time to tell someone you appreciate them, as you never know when you will see them again. Whether by natural disaster or deranged gunman, America has recently been reminded how abruptly life can be cut short. Presumably there are a lot of people wishing they had one more chance to tell someone they loved them before the tragic concert in Las Vegas last Sunday night.
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And yet there still seems to be a reticence to tell people what they mean to us while they are still around. In Latin there's a term for the need to speak well of the recently deceased — de mortuis nil nisi bonum, or "say nothing but good about the dead." But America needs just as much nil nisi bonum viventem — speaking well of the living.
A few years ago, some friends at National Public Radio proposed one day a year they called "Appreciation Day," where people can take to social media and, for one day a year, tell someone how much they mean to them. The target could be a famous person, could be a loved one, or could be the janitorial staff in his or her office building. It would simply be a way to, without embarrassment, earnestly let someone know you appreciate what they do.
In this spirit, I will spend the next month on Twitter using the #AppreciationMonth hashtag to praise people who are special to me. In the words of Gandhi, "As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”
So feel free to join in — it doesn't mean you can't throw shade at those who deserve it, it simply requires brightening the life of someone who may not know they made a difference in your life. And even if you don't feel comfortable participating, recognize that I appreciate you for reading this column. (Unless you're Keith Olbermann, that guy is horrible.)
Christian Schneider is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @Schneider_CM