Why We Feel Separated and How to Get Connected
It’s no secret that technology is changing faster than it ever has before. In the last 20 years alone, we’ve been introduced to forms of communication that we could never have imagined. And yet, in the midst of all of this advancement, it seems more and more common for people to feel social regression.
This prompts us to ask a very simple question: where is the disconnect? What is it about the world we live in today that leaves so many feeling isolated, even with all the ways we have to communicate with ease? My goal is to try to answer that question, and to help get you thinking about ways to get back in touch with real, meaningful community.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to ask you to consider what your life would be like had you been born about 200 years ago. For my family, the trail of historical information mostly goes cold around the late 1800s, but if I were to take an educated guess I would say that I’m most likely harvesting grain somewhere in the fields of what is now northern Germany.
Even looking back at the relatively short period of 200 years, it’s very hard to say what we would be doing. But I suspect that when I ask this question, many of you jumped to the thought that technology would be very different than it is right now. Among the casualties of our 200-year journey to the past are electricity, most indoor plumbing, and just about anything that we think of as a vehicle.
And there’s something else that changes when we go back 200 years in time that I think we tend to lose sight of: once we subtract 200 years of technology, we end up in a world where the only information we have access to is what’s pretty much directly in front of us. In 1822 we’re just a decade or so away from the invention of the telegram, but for the time being we’re stuck with mostly word of mouth, and whatever is directly in front of us. Maybe a letter comes in from elsewhere every now and then, but we receive these weeks or months after they enter transit. And so, there’s really not any choice except to focus on what’s right in front of us.
I think you can probably see why I walked us through this initial exercise—because it contrasts so sharply with life as we know it today. It’s commonplace at this point to be watching a broadcast of historical events from across the world as they are happening. Also available to us is what feels like an infinite number of opinions on these events, many of them from people we’ve never even met. I tend to think that this side of the internet and social media is something that produces anxiety for a lot of people. On the one hand, there are big world events in front of us every single day, many of which are so far away from our lives that we don’t quite know what to do about them. And along with this, we receive so many thoughts and opinions in a day that it can be hard to decide which ones we really want to listen to.
When it comes to feeling a sense of community, I think it’s this high volume of information to sort through that leaves a lot of people feeling left out. Text messaging and social media can put us in this spot where we end up having a lot of quick, shallow interactions, instead of having a few deep interactions (which was more typical in years past).
The paradox of “easy” communication is that it also requires much less intentionality, making it easier to walk away from situations we just don’t feel like dealing with. When Facebook first became popular, it was exciting for a lot of people as a way to keep up with friends who we had fallen out of contact with. And I want to be clear that I myself appreciate these tools in some ways, as things like Facebook and Skype allowed for me as an Air Force brat to keep up with my friends in a way that wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years earlier. So I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I am opposed to convenience; the microwaveable Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich that I currently hold in my hand should tell you otherwise.
What I want to encourage you to do is consider if quick, shallow interactions have replaced long, deep interactions in your week-to-week life. I believe that for a lot of people the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ and it’s in that question that we might find the answer to our modern-day paradox of connectedness.
I promised above to get us thinking about how to get in touch with real, meaningful community, and I think that question has a lot to do with taking the time to have deeper interactions with other people. If we feel that quick, shallow interactions have replaced long, deep interactions, then to me our course of action is to replace them back!
It can be helpful here to start with the general—such as “I feel like I’d like to have more friends”—and move those things into the specific—“these are the ways I would like to spend my time with friends.” And from there, it’s a question of following through on these better ways to use our time. It’s not unusual for me to hear someone say that they don’t have the time to spend with other people, but when we think about this more, it often turns out that a person realizes they don’t make the time to spend with other people.
Social media does tend to occupy the small moments of inactivity that we have, but when it becomes something that takes up long chunks of time, we can see how that time might be replaced by even just a thirty-minute phone call with a friend you haven’t heard from in a while.
I don’t want anyone to get it in their mind that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to practice the habit of spending time with others; simply listening to your internal sense of what you want in your life that’s missing right now is the best place to start. Making a choice to be intentional and spend real time with others is always going to feel more satisfying than doing nothing, especially in the long run.
When you feel nervous or hesitant about trying something new or asking someone to spend time, ask yourself these questions: “Am I nervous about this because it’s really not for me, or because I don’t want to disrupt the habits I have right now? And if it is the latter, are the habits that I have right now really working for me?”
I encourage you to challenge the desire to stay exactly where you are with the thought of how much more you’ll enjoy yourself if you do make a change and find something that works for you. Dissatisfaction doesn’t always require a huge change to rectify. Sometimes, all we need to feel improvement is a small tweak here or there.