(Note: This article first published as Losing Our Religion on Technorati.)
Last night I came home and heard the news. “Steve Jobs died.”
“What?” I stood right in front of the screen, the huge screen.
“Oh my G-d.”
We watched the coverage. Over and over they played the same thing, pronouncements of grief, a statement from the President, snippets from his speech about death and its meaning.
I stood there and I cried. I was embarrassed that I cried. I don’t even know Steve Jobs. Over an iPod? An iPad? A MacBook Air? I don’t cry that much in synagogue.
Our nation is in mourning over the passing of this man. Commentators like Meghan O'Rourke at The New Yorker offer a laundry list of reasons – he was an innovative genius who represents our own aspirations; he was an innovative genius who improved our lives; he was an innovative genius who was also one of us. Her view is psychoanalytic; our subconscious reaction is to grieve as though we'd suffered a personal amputation:
"Not every celebrity death elicits such an outcry: one wagers that it is only the death of those people in whom we see something of ourselves."
There is truth in that. We are deeply attached to what Steve Jobs represents and to the brand that he built. And it is part of our lives and something very real has been taken.
But that is not why we’re crying so hard.
We’re crying because we lost a spiritual figure. Because Steve Jobs invented not just a brand, but a religious sect, in the larger institution we could call Brand Religion.
We Americans are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist. atheist, agnostic, Wiccan. Fighters for social justice – for the environment, against exploitation, even driven by vague drives to root out corruption and greed (“Occupy Wall Street.”)
Whatever we label ourselves – or maybe we prefer the term “No Labels” – we are a deeply spiritual nation even though others may see us as materialistic and shallow. But we haven’t found refuge in religion. Because religious leaders, like leaders in business government, education, healthcare and elsewhere, have abused our trust and our faith. Leaving us a bit rudderless.
So, without thinking, we have turned to brands as the national religion. Because they are unfettered by the limits of true religion. With a brand, you think for yourself, you invent yourself, and you create community around your unique personal preferences.
We are mourning Steve Jobs so painfully – we are crying before our TV screens – because so many of us joined the religious community he created in Apple. It was an outlet for our beliefs, crystallized in a name. And we are scared now that our place of worship is gone.
Mr. Jobs, wherever you are, I join a devastated nation in mourning your passing. But at the same time, I know that you are just a person, and that Apple is just a company. There is only one G-d and we must find our path to the Divine individually.
Maybe that was what you were saying all along.
Steve Jobs, RIP.
Photo credit: FreefotoUK