We have become a society of people who avoid each other. Our instinct is no longer to extend ourselves to help a fellow human being in need, but rather to protect ourselves, our feelings, our time. We hide. We prefer to be alone. We prefer to sit back and observe. We prefer to climb inside our devices than to live out in the world.
We screen our calls. We send 10 texts rather than make a one-minute phone call. We don’t reply to emails. We cross to the other side of the street. We stare at our phone in the elevator. We avoid making eye contact. We pray we’ll get their voicemail. We hold the door-close button when we see them coming.
It wasn’t more than a couple generations ago that people would sit on chairs outside their home waiting to see who would walk by. It wasn’t that long ago that people would stop by one another’s homes unannounced. We used to crave face-to-face connection; now we evade it.
Each step ‘forward’ has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.”
~ Jonathan Safran Foer, How Not to Be Alone
So how is this impacting us? We are so plugged in that we are losing our ability to connect. The less present we are in our own bodies and with others, the less capacity we have for empathy and compassion. The less we’re able to fulfill another person’s needs (or even want to!), and the less we’re able to have our needs fulfilled in return.
We are losing our ability to live a compassionate life because we’re so out of practice. That leads us to make more assumptions about other people based on our own experiences — the only thing we know. And it turns out we don’t know anything.
We are knowing ourselves less and less, and we’re feeling powerless as a result. Because we’re hunched over our computers, hunched over our phones and tablets, our heart centers are facing down — towards our devices. Our backs are to the world. And this posture is negatively affecting our own views of self-worth and our capacity for self-awareness. How we pose shapes how we feel. All these distractions, the lack of physical motion, and the lack of presence all combines to disconnect us not only from one another, but from ourselves.
Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.
We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or — being “anti-technology” is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly “pro-technology” — but a question of balance that our lives hang upon.”
Read more of Jonathan Safran Foer’s eloquent thoughts on the topic in Sunday’s NY Times article How Not to Be Alone.
In the coming weeks, I’l be writing more on how to combat this by developing greater presence –- to better our attention to ourselves and to others. Being present requires being mindful, and there are a whole slew of techniques for developing mindfulness. Stay tuned.
Thanks to Andrew Maier for sharing this article with me.
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