Edward Hopper, Automat (1927)
I sit in the upper corner of the lecture theatre, the exact same place every time. Left edge, close to the exit; last row, so that no one can look over my shoulder. I see all (not counting the upper circle) and no one sees me. I see groups of two, three, four; flocks of voices, excited and bored, simultaneously for the most part. And I am sitting there, nudging at my computer, waiting, editing a creative piece or pretending to do so. And, honestly, I’m fine.
I spend a lot of time by my lonesome. Some would say people like me are the reason for all those morbid statistics and studies, arguing that our generation is the loneliest one of all, and that one in four 18-30 years olds feels genuinely isolated. There are numerous grounds for those numbers, and they’re quite often linked to social media. Curating a perfect profile, persona-fying the self—this must take time, and, I suppose, some new type of intelligence, one created on the brink of evolution and desperation. It also must include a certain amount of solitude, in order to give one the illusion of a need for virtual companionship.
According to a 2017 study, a high use of social media is associated with increased feelings of isolation, which doesn’t come as a surprise at this point.(1) There is even a word for the fear of being disconnected from one’s phone: nomophobia. I’m throwing all of this obviousness around, but what does it all mean? On the surface it’s pretty straight-forward—we need to get ourselves out there, face-to-face, and find a sense of cooperation instead of competition. But I’d suggest something different.
I would argue that one of the reasons why we’re supposedly so afraid to disconnect, and that we feel so alone at the same time, is not just our internet addiction (which is nonetheless an issue), but our fear of being alone. I regularly hear people asking for company from one campus building to another, five minutes away, because, for some reason, they can’t bear to spend break time by themselves. I know people who admit that they are too afraid of remaining with and within themselves, and so they drag themselves along all the other avenues for distraction that they come across, whether or not it truly fills them with joy. Online or offline, in darkness or drunkenness, some kind of ‘social life’ always seems like the answer. Sometimes, though, it might be the problem.
There is an inordinate amount of stigma associated with solitude, making people like me ashamed to exist the way we do. Not being on social media is wrong, going out to the movies alone is weird, finding enough intellectual stimulation from one-sided conversations with pieces of literature, or even with one’s own self, is freakish and self-centred. Isn’t that right? And then I go out there, hearing about the apparently glaring certitude of a ‘social life,’ a term thrown around like the wind. Nowhere, yet everywhere.
I am not saying we should all follow Le Corbusier and lock ourselves up in isolated cubicles. I know connection is important, and I’m probably on the other extreme of the spectrum. But I think there is something about my way of being that is more liberating than the normative psyche—and that is the fact that I trust myself to keep me occupied and entertained, and fulfilled. Rather than succumbing to a fear of missing out, I practice the joy of missing out, because, the truth is, you always miss out on something. But you also always don’t miss out on something else. Tell me why, then, does missing out on being with others always seem scarier than missing out on being with yourself?
As much as we need each other, we first and foremost need ourselves. Solitude is not a sin; it is crucial for our survival. Yin and yang, the golden mean, the opposing forces, and all that. The problem with social media is not just that it isolates us, but that it puts us in a hole outside the framework of those forces, where we can’t differentiate between these polar opposites anymore. It removes the structure of the entire basis of our being, and confuses us into thinking we know what is going on. And that’s why it is so important to keep, at our core, a sense of self.
(1) Primack, Brian A., et al. “Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 53, no. 1, 6 Mar. 2017, pp. 1–8., doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010.
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Edited by Alexia McDonald, Digital Editor