I believe we are living in a culture that is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. I see it in the social media boom: people "talk" constantly through their tweets, Facebook and other social media as a way to try to connect to others. People seem much more compelled to "speak" through these media sound bites than to actually spend time together. Often, now, people become fixated on their social media even when they are with other people. The other day I was having a very intense personal conversation with a friend who wouldn't put down his phone and was Face-booking and responding to emails even as he asked me personal questions. I felt strange talking to a bowed head and the back of someone's phone. It felt almost shaming to have a person ask me something very private while not making eye contact with me, but while, instead, typing away on his phone. I felt invisible. I clearly wasn't the priority in that moment. But since he was asking me personal and deep questions, I also didn't know how to deal with the situation. Looking back, I probably should have said, "I can wait until you are done" before continuing, but in the moment, that did not occur to me and I couldn't think how to be polite but also clear that I was not going to have that intimate conversation with the back of someone's phone.
I found myself wondering why emails, Facebook and tweeting are so much more compelling than actually talking to the person in front of you. Perhaps it's because it feels like we are talking to a whole bunch of friends at once. We also don't have to worry about being interrupted. We type what we want to say, taking the time we need to be specific and thoughtful about our words (or not), we don't always know who will respond or "listen" but we can expect that at least someone out there will. Also, it is fast and we can disengage as quickly as we want. We can, in a cyber way, connect with someone else for 30 seconds or for ten minutes without the pressure of an entire conversation, or with the awkwardness of beginnings and endings to one's time with someone else. In our instant gratification society, that quick fix of a five minute interaction with a group of folk may feel very satisfying. Some of us are more observers, others more sharers, but on social media we choose whether we just browse and read others' comments, respond to them, or start a line of conversation ourselves. It seems perfect. It takes away the loneliness, gives us instant support when we need it, an instant entertainment otherwise. It does not require much from us, we only engage it when we want to for the length of time that we choose. We get to engage more than one person, usually, at a time, and we can talk about anything we choose, saying whatever we want in the time and space we want to say it.
Sounds ideal, right?
Except for the long list of downsides to this. First, we are forgetting how to really talk to each other, how to truly build relationships, how to go "deep" with another person, something that takes time and intentionality. We are physically isolated in our homes with only our electronics to keep us company. We no longer touch and engage real people. I ask you to consider, how many close friends do you have at whose homes you could just show up at any time? Most of the real "talking" we do with close friends is still done through electronics, mostly done by text or by phone. How often in a week do you get together with friends to just be together? It's not like the way it used to be when people saw each other daily and met for coffee in each other's homes with regularity. We live in our little boxes, rarely know our neighbors, those who actually live and breathe and work and eat near us.
This also means that we tend to only be friends with people who have similar ideas and visions to ourselves. We are friends with those with whom we work, perhaps, or those in the same fields. We aren't pushed to know the next door neighbor who has radically different politics or a different faith from us. We only connect with like-minded people, and we are the ones who lose out as a result. Our ideas are not expanded, only supported by others who are similar to us. Our vision and thoughts aren't pushed or challenged.
Another obvious problem: people can become mean behind the anonymity of media. It is easy to forget that the person you are talking to is a real, flesh and blood human being with feelings and thoughts and worries and histories and experiences which make them vulnerable, fragile, REAL. We've all read about the damage done through cyber bullying, the teens at risk because of the cruel words spoken to them or the images sent to them that damage psyches and sometimes lead to suicides. This happens to adults, too, in case you were wondering. The habits of anonymous and cruel cyber bullying grow with the cyber bullies into adulthood and become a pattern of terrible meanness that injures far more people than we will probably ever know.
All of this also leads to further emotional, psychological and even physical issues. There is a wonderful video out about the causes of addition that suggests that a large part of our personal problems stem from social isolation, from loneliness, from a lack of support. While I don't agree that this is the only cause of these problems, I do think that we need to start looking at the social causes (and social solutions!) to these issues with much more seriousness.
We know our politics are becoming much more polarized as we forget how to talk to each other, and more, how to listen to one another.
What if, for one day a week, everyone were to put down their phones, computers and other electronic "friends" and actually go spend time with their real human friends, or, even more radically, with their neighbors? How would our lives change? How would things be different? Might we start learning to talk and listen to each other again? Might we begin to close some of the gaps in our thinking and understanding and visions for the world? Might we learn and grow and deepen in new ways? And, most of all, perhaps we would find we aren't so lonely anymore. And that would not be a bad thing!