Recently, my Smartner and I were able to steal a few hours out of the house together when a dear friend offered to watch our kids. It was a rare treat – an opportunity to reconnect and have full uninterrupted conversations, and it was bliss. We lingered over the meal, relishing our drinks, relishing the time together and the ability to speak in complete sentences, but as I looked around, I noticed we may have been the only ones relishing. Granted, this is an unusual indulgence for us now that we have kids, but I don’t think that was what set us apart. And it’s not our age – we’re in our mid-30s, but we were younger than many of the couples in the restaurant with us.
The difference was this: We were focused on each other. We chose to connect, to communicate directly with person we’d come with, and we enjoyed the live company right in front of us. Meanwhile, couples around us sat in silence, grinning down at their glowing phones. They scrolled and tapped and stared away at the little lit screens in their hands, while the live 3D flesh and blood people next to them did the very same. Something about it was heartbreaking.
When I was younger, I remember feeling this same sadness watching couples out together, ignoring each other in favor of their newspapers. It wasn’t that they were reading. There would have been something lovely about a couple reading together. But there was never any sense of together. The newspapers then served the same purpose as phones and tablets now – of separation. The newspapers were held aloft, creating a wall of paper between couples and families and stopping any opportunity to talk. It always broke my heart, but now the prevalence of phones and tablets in front of every face is just staggering. It blows me away. As much as people believe they are using these devices for social connection, they’re actually using them in place of it. I watched these couples actively ignoring each other, having chosen to go out to spend time and money outside of their homes in order to stare at screens. And I just felt so sad for them.
Growing up on dystopian sci-fi literature, I always thought we were so far off from those Ray Bradbury and Vonnegut stories, miles away from the kind of isolation authors like George Orwell & Aldous Huxley warned us about. But it was just around the corner. We’re living it now. In our desperate efforts to connect with each other, were pulling further and further apart.
People need each other. Connection. Touch. Care. Community. These are things we need to maintain joy and fulfillment. Without them, were lost. Alone. Floating in a world full of people without connection. And it’s so unnecessary.
I’ve watched people my old students’ age – kids who’ve grown up with cell phones and social media and are now in their mid to late 20s – and I’ve watched how they often struggle for meaningful connections. They want to connect with the people around them, but so many of them have only learned to share and be vulnerable online. They don’t know how to do it in person. There are long periods of surface interaction followed by bursts of emotion – bursts the other person often feels unprepared for – and the delicate balance of connection and communication is lost.
Even more bizarre, I’ve watched people of my generation and older fall into this same pattern of social incompetency. Suddenly relying heavily on social media and electronic connection to the detriment of real life relationships. Social connection is a two-way street. This is by no means a revolutionary idea, but the reason so many people feel disconnected – the reason so many people try and fail to connect online is that the internet is a one-way street. You can pour out every thought, every emotion, every rage you have online, but unless you’re listening to others, unless it’s a give and take, it’s nearly impossible to truly connect. Connection comes from shared stories, shared vulnerability, shared investment. Without that, what do you have? A vessel to dump bits of yourself into?
I am not anti-technology. I use it every day and rely on it for any number of things, including community. My community of Smarty Mommies across the globe was built right here on the Internet. My writing community was built on the Internet. I know, from experience, that it’s possible to connect online and I get a lot from my various screens and the people who live in them. I’ve connected because we have been willing to take the time necessary. We’ve been willing to not only put information out there, but to listen to each other. And that is incredibly valuable. But it’s not all there is.
My Smartner lives in my world. He’s a big part of it. We share a home and children and families and friends, and as tempting as it can be to sit in separate rooms and stare at glowing screens, we need to share a real life connection within our real life. I have real life friends, and I need to see them to maintain the deepest connections. My children need to look in my eyes and hug me and hear my voice when I speak to them. Face-to-face matters.
Still, the screens are irresistible. It’s nearly the only way to connect with most folks now. Texting and Facebook and Instagram and Twitter are the preferred methods of communication for almost everyone now. And granted, it’s convenient. People are so busy and scheduled now, being able to quickly text is nice. When you have two small kids running and hollering at your feet, it’s much easier to text or like a friend’s picture on social media than to schedule a time to talk on the phone or get together to talk about your weekends.
But this is what we need to do. The urge to crawl inside ourselves and bask in our own uniqueness is too strong to give in to. We need to reach out. To be together. To connect. To talk. To listen. To touch. The more alone we are, the more disconnected we become, the worse we’ll all feel. If our idea of a date is to go sit at a table and ignore each other in favor of a Tumblr, there’s a problem.
So, Smarties. This is my challenge to you. Call someone today. Make plans to see a friend or a family member in person. Step away from the screen on which you're reading this. I love having you here, but the people in your real life love having you more. Go be a 3D person. We'll be here when you get back.
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“No wires tender even as nerves can transmit the impact of our seasons, our catastrophes while we are closed inside them” ― Margaret Atwood, "What Happened", The Animals in that Country