On Technology And Being Alone

Put down your devices or be ruined by them. This is the message preached by various videos gone viral over the last couple of months. At first I went along with what you might call the “technological backlash,” having spent a lot of time in therapy working toward a healthy balance in regards to using my phone and computer. It wasn’t until I watched a particular TED Talk near the end of the semester that my perspective started to shift. Profound and thought provoking, I had to choke back tears as we discussed it for my career and leadership class. I related to it on such a deep level, and realized that perhaps being so connected isn’t as cut and dry as people think. 

There’s no arguing that (rapidly advancing) technology has a dark, even ugly side. I’ve witnessed the internet bring out the worst in some, and I’ve had relationships that were built on a false sense of security because we communicated almost entirely online or via texting. Yet when it comes to addressing this unsettling reality as a whole, attitude really does make a difference.

The problem is way bigger than being glued to Candy Crush or sharing ridiculous cat videos on Facebook. That being said, the solution is much more than demanding less time on social media and pointing out why we’re supposedly better off without it. 

Electronic communication and the internet is not the heart of the issue. Rather, fear and loneliness is. 

Like Sherri, I’m convinced that we are the way we are because we don’t know how to be comfortable with being alone. 

And I say that because for nearly a decade, I was one of those people. 

From the time I was twelve, the mere idea of physically being by myself was absolutely terrifying. Part of it may have very well been pre-conditioned; at the age of ten I can recall being told by a school counselor that I needed to be actively playing with other kids instead of just watching or walking around on my own. By the time I reached junior high, I genuinely believed that weekends without a packed social schedule indicated that something was wrong with me. High school and college were a little bit different because it was more about experiences and not wanting to miss out on them. But age and maturity didn’t make me immune to the sting of rejection; the build up to the weekend made me anxious and desperate to plan things in advance to avoid being left out. And when a lot of those weekends were spent watching movies instead of going to parties or night clubs (at least for the first two years as a college student), my overactive imagination went into overdrive.

In that time, online communication and texting was less about hiding and more about just personal preference. I’ve always said that writing is like a second voice because it gives me the ability to articulate thoughts that are difficult to talk about in person. Back then, it was easier to discuss a subject in a text or a Facebook message first because I could choose my words carefully and not run the risk of being misinterpreted. I admit that I initially started blogging because I didn’t know how to contribute my own opinions in a face-to-face discussion. And even though I’m older, there’s still some truth in that for me today, but it really depends on the topic.

But I still found myself over-analyzing, second-guessing, and ultimately working myself up to where I just didn’t know what to do anymore. I tried limiting my time on social media to twice a day, and when that didn’t work, I would try to only check it when I saw notifications on my phone. Yet it wasn’t long before I started to feel the way that some do when they go on certain diets; they mess up or “cheat” and experience instant shame or frustration. 

I struggled very much with anxiety for most of my senior year of college, particularly as graduation neared. At one point I even sat down with my therapist and discussed on the possibility of going on medication, as I’ve noticed that my mind tends to shut down and leave me unable to think about anything whenever I become seriously overwhelmed. (I initially thought this was due to texting, but it also happens when I’m in public places that are extremely crowded). The combination of that and having a creative mind that goes in all different directions can be a ridiculous recipe for a breakdown, which did happen once or twice. 

“It’s not just about your habits,” she explained. “It’s also about the story you keep telling yourself whenever this kind of thing comes up.” 

It was a story in which a lack of response meant that they didn’t want to talk to me or see me. It meant that they didn’t care and I didn’t matter. Is this story true? For some, perhaps so, but  a lot of it can be chalked up to simply being lazy or being forgetful. We all do it to some extent.

On the other side, a lot of people experience those feelings and wonder if they could have said or done something different. It’s so hard not to take it personally, and in some respects after a certain point it does become personal. But the bottom line is that you can’t control what other people think or do because of it. What is said or done in love and kindness should not result in guilt or shame. 

Yet I wonder if this kind of mindset would exist if generation after generation wasn’t raised to believe in vulnerability as a bad thing. If people were comfortable enough with not only telling, but showing a loved one that they cared, would the person on the other side of the screen be driving themselves crazy?

How would it be if people believed that all emotions are valid, and that they have every right to express them out loud?

 How would it be if our culture stopped focusing on the meaning of life based on age or gender, but based on what it means to be human?

In my personal experience, it’s all about awareness. Despite that I use my phone and computer a lot, I do have instinctive limits. I can’t explain what it is exactly, but I get this feeling whenever I sense that I’m using one or both too much. It’s like a combination of anxiety and annoyance, and when that happens, then I know it’s time to take a break. Of course, I still do things to help increase that awareness: I rarely use headphones anymore and choose not to take my phone with me when I go for walks or work out. Paying attention to the triggers helps me moderate how I use it without having to avoid it altogether. 

Finding comfort (and even contentment) in actually being alone is something that I’m still working at as well. It took a long time for that little voice in my head to quiet down; the one that constantly asked what are they all doing without me? One of the concepts pointed out in the video is that spending time alone teaches us how to relate better to others, and to better understand ourselves. When I genuinely reflected on it, I realized just how much growth took place when I was completely by myself. Some of those times were incredibly lonely, where I often wept like a baby and had to grit my teeth in order not to slip into a deep depression. But when I re-read various journals and just allowed myself to be still, I was filled with an indescribable amount of peace. Once I found true joy in that, I discovered that my faith grew deeper, I became a better writer, among other things. I actually find myself craving it when I’m around people for long periods of time, although I’m learning how to cope when I can’t. 

Once I learned to be comfortable with admitting that I was lonely, it seemed like the stigma fell away. When that happens now, I see it as a natural reaction that is temporary and will eventually pass.

Yet that doesn’t change the fact that cyberspace now resembles that of an addiction, and electronics are the ones that feed it. 

But it’s not just what we do that exemplifies this culture. It’s the way we view it. 

In other words, we romanticize the past and villify the present. There needs to be a balance that’s healthy but understanding of the world we live in. 

I don’t think kids under the age of thirteen should have a smartphone or a tablet, but I’m also not a parent. Technological overload doesn’t mess with the human mind, but a lack of boundaries and moderation does. 

The internet can destroy, but it can also unite. I never discovered that so many others had the same questions and doubts (regarding the current state of Christianity) until I got into blogging. There’s no verbal communication, but the stories did and still do speak to me. And I’m grateful. 

Texting is terrible for planning and having important conversations, but I love the fact that I started a prayer circle because of it. 

Social networking has its hangups; it does cause jealousy and insecurity, but it’s not right to blame those who are simply trying to share their happiness with others. There are certain types of posts that I would rather not see on Facebook or Twitter, but it’s not my place to go running interference. The only thing that gets under my skin is when I find out about the death of a friend or family member through someone else’s Facebook post, rather than get a phone call or even just a text beforehand. While I get that those affected don’t want to openly talk about it, it’s still disrespectful to others that knew the deceased person, even if they didn’t have the closest relationship. Pardon going off topic, but it’s a serious matter and one that I feel very strongly about.

 Contrary to popular belief, I don’t get the hype over a supposed “golden age” where everybody talked to each other all the time. If I didn’t want to socialize, I read books in the middle of class, and I can imagine those of previous decades hiding behind newspapers or just flat out ignoring those around them. Would they talk more if they didn’t have distractions in front of them? Probably. But sometimes it’s more a matter of someone simply wanting there own space. In circumstances such as public transportation or crowded areas, most likely they’re doing what they feel is necessary to keep themselves safe.

And though traditional means of communication are changing, there are other avenues opening up alongside that, particularly in terms of careers. I love being creative with various platforms, from coming up with catchy slogans that will fit one hundred forty characters or discovering various means to promote an upcoming story collection. Technology is providing certain kinds of jobs that didn’t exist a decade or so ago, and being able to network has mind finding a job so much easier. Also, why bash a tool that has helped me stretched my creativity and help reach more audiences with my writing? 

That’s the underlying issue in all of this; people spending all this energy arguing and fighting against things that they don’t use or aspects that they’re not even part of. No one’s saying that you have to be involved with social media or own a smartphone, and not doing so doesn’t make you better than anyone else. Technology would be less overwhelming (and concerning) if there weren’t crusade-like arguments that perpetuate all of it. 

I get that some, if not most networks are often a breeding ground for negativity, and it can get really old after a while. But why try to convince somebody who probably isn’t going to listen, and instead just change a few settings so you don’t have to see that stuff? (de-friending or blocking seems a little bit drastic). The fact that anyone spends time and energy trying to dictate what others do online says more about them than it does about those being criticized. It says “I refuse to take responsibility for my own actions,” which is the kind of attitude that contributes to more problems than just what goes on in cyberspace. 

If you are seriously concerned with what someone else is doing on the other side of a computer screen, then be an adult and talk to them about it. Otherwise if it’s just something like seeing too many selfies or pointless articles, maybe it would be a good idea to just stop scrolling and get off of the computer for a little bit. Again, no one is forcing you to do anything. Everyone should be able to express themselves freely and not feel like they have to cater to their friend/follower list. I’m very conciancious of what I share and the fact that not all will appreciate it, and that’s OK. I’m doing it because I came across something that made me happy or made me think, and I want to do my best to create a positive environment online. I’m not going to apologize for that.

It’s not bad to occasionally reminisce about “back in the day”; who doesn’t like talking about their extensive CD collection, along with everything that came before that? But fighting against (inevitable) change and always longing for what used to be seems like a battle that will ultimately go nowhere. 

Like loneliness, technology is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just part of life. You can either embrace it and roll with it, or waste your days being cynical over something that you can’t control. 

Trust me when I say that once you do, it definitely gets easier to deal with.

photo credit: Anne Worner via photopin cc

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