Thursday, February 19, 2009


The Internet and social network sites (c.f. Facebook) are just tools and don't replace the one-on-one real time interactions with real people, which I prefer.

Even in the hustle of my current life in Burlington, Vermont, I may be lonely (who, me?!?), but I am never frightened by being alone. As a student at The Mountain School I discovered the joys of reflection and meditation - whether among my friends at daily silent morning meetings or feeding the pigs! I continue to practice that transcending discipline in meditation, doing yoga in my house, walking a dog in my neighborhood, kayaking out on the lake, biking on the trail along the waterfront to the causeway, or hiking in Lamoille County up from the Mountain Road to Sterling Pond and Spruce Peak. Do I make sense?

Neil Swidely in The Boston Globe Magazine:
I'm sitting in a pew near the back of St. Anne's Church in Fall River, a soaring structure of Vermont blue marble that could rival a lesser European cathedral. It was built in the late 1800s, when the southeastern Massachusetts mill city's French Canadian community was big enough to warrant a church able to seat 2,000. On this blustery afternoon, the crowd is more like a tenth of that. The priest is talking, but the lousy PA system makes it hard to hear what he's saying. So I'm doing what I've done before in this situation: trying to keep my young daughters occupied by whispering for them to study their surroundings -- the exquisitely carved red-oak woodwork near the high ceiling, the enormous pipe organ in the rear balcony, the colorful stained-glass windows on every wall. With its combination of architectural grandeur and crumbling-plaster fatigue, the place is like Venice in the unforgiving light of morning, rather than the soft-lit romanticism of night. It's honest and beautiful.

Then I hear an odd chirping. My eyes follow my ears to a pew to my left and behind me, where a guy with slicked black hair and dark glasses is sitting. He's chewing gum and wearing one of those Bluetooth cellphone attachments in his ear.

Hey, man, I'm bored, too. But, c'mon, take that infernal thing out of your ear. Say a prayer. Collect your thoughts. Or just do what my 4-year-old is doing and stare at the ceiling.

Did I mention it was Christmas Day Mass?

Not long ago, I was sitting in the "quiet study" section of my local public library when a middle-aged woman wearing an annoyed expression plopped down in the green upholstered chair next to my table, her teenage daughter in tow. She flipped open her cellphone and dialed her daughter's therapist. After giving the therapist's secretary her full name and slowly spelling her daughter's -- loud enough for every soul in that wing of the library to hear -- she said, "We have an appointment for next week, but I want to know if he has any availability before that. She is really not doing well."

I looked up from my laptop, incredulous that a mother could be so blase about violating her daughter's privacy, not to mention library decorum -- and convinced that the therapist and the daughter must have no time to discuss anything besides mother issues.

Now, I know what you're going to say. There have always been boors blabbing in places where they should be quiet, blithely ignoring the shushes from librarians or the stares from fellow elevator passengers while behaving as though they're the only ones whose problems matter. Bad manners are bad manners, irrespective of technology, right?

Yes, only technology has vastly expanded this bad behavior, eroding much of society's stigma against it, and making it everybody's problem. But here's the real point: It is dulling our very capacity to ever be alone, or alone in our thoughts.
What's fueling this? Neil Swidely goes on to explain,
"We've gone from an American ethic that championed the lone guy on a horseback to an ethic of managing multiple data streams," says Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University and author of the new book Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety. "It's very hard for people to unplug and be alone -- and be with the one data stream of their mind."

What's fueling this? Conley says it's anxiety borne out of a deep-seated fear that we're being left out of something, somewhere, and that we may lose out on advancement in our work, social, or family lives if we truly check out. "The anxiety of being alone drives this behavior to constantly respond and Twitter and text, but the very act of doing it creates the anxiety."

This is particularly true among young people, mainly because they don't know life when it wasn't like this.
H/T to The Lead for alerting me to the Globe essay.

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