• June 19, 2013

    thoughts on :: how not to be alone

    photo (4)

    lately I’ve been thinking about loneliness. how sometimes it follows me around like a puppy, always nipping at my heels. it’s not that I am often alone. there’s roommates (who I love) and co-workers (equally so) and a town bursting with new people to meet at every concert or coffee shop or corner. and even in moments without the presence of actual human beings, there’s facebook and twitter and tumblr and even this little corner to keep me company. so in a world where some form of “community” is so readily at my finger tips, why is it that I often feel kind of alone?

    my friend, beth, pointed me to this article by jonathan safran foer called, “how not to be alone,” written for the new york times. JSF is one of my favorites for his knack of making the broken and tragic and lonely astoundingly beautiful. and his words, like those of many great writers, often reach readers exactly at the necessary place they are in, creating a myriad of different responses to the same string of words. the meaning that beth found in his words is amazingly wise. I fear my interpretation is a bit less eloquent, but here you go.

    like lots of other articles today, JSF writes of technology. he acknowledges that experience I’ve had, but not been able to name – of feeling connected, but alone. the paradoxical characteristic of technology, he says, is that it “celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat.” when we engage with others through a screen, this is not an improvement on face-to-face interaction. it is, at best, a “diminished substitute” meant to fill just one tenth of the gap created as we move further from one another. but now, we’ve begun to prefer the diminished substitute to the real thing. because, be honest, how often do you call a friend hoping to get their voicemail? how many times did I ride the metro to work, choosing to look into the screen of my phone instead of into the eyes of my fellow commuters? on that underground of isolation, we so rarely engaged with each other that when I actually saw it happen, I was compelled to write about it. what happened? we embraced the diminished substitute. we fell into the practice of checking emails instead of each other. we got into the habit of paying attention to “likes” instead of faces.

    disclaimer: his words (and mine here) are not some staunch cry against technology. if they were just about the ills of social media, beth may not have been compelled to write about contentment and gratitude because of them. and my takeaway would be different too. his words do not come with a requirement that I throw away my iPhone and delete all my social media accounts. they just ask me to look up from them every once in a while. and into the eyes of others around me. they remind me, ever so gently, that I don’t have forever to pay attention to the world around me. that my days of searching for beauty and seeking to create it are finite. that all of us, really, only have a few more years “to wrestle with the question of purpose and wrestle with our answers.”

    JSF doesn’t answer the question of “how not to be alone.” at least not explicitly. instead, he writes of an experience, sitting on a bench next to a crying stranger. and how he had to choose between scrolling through the contact list on his phone and engaging with her tears. I’m afraid to think of what I would have done. because here’s the thing – at the moment of choosing, our choice has already been made. my habit of checking my phone whenever I am standing in line or alone in a public place does not bode well for my ability to notice another human being in the moment they most need to be noticed. JSF puts it this way: “the flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. and our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.” so, if my habit is to look down and in instead of up and out, what will I do with the crying stranger? what will I do with the crying friend even? because in the end, my “heart” on their instagram pic will not help. only my undivided attention will. my empathy. my recognition that they are here and I am here and we are connected even when the wifi is down.

    we live in a world made up more of story than stuff. we are creatures of memory more than reminders, of love more than likes. being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. it can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. but it is not something we give. it is what we get.


    Filed Under: THOUGHTS ON...

    8 Responses

    1. Shanna says:

      This is me saying on the Internet that I like this and I like you. Here’s to more saying it in person, too.

      • carriehorton says:

        Thanks Shanna! You have no idea how glad I am for bloggers like you who I know in real life and know do not let their online world consume their real world. l’m thankful for you!

    2. Beth Mathews says:

      You are one of the most attentive and caring friends I have and it’s a quality that I wished I possessed more! Thank you for these words and your heart. I love the line “we are connected even when the wifi is down.” Love you!

      • carriehorton says:

        Thanks, Beth. You know I get most of my good ideas from you! And you’re desire to really KNOW people outside of internet life is inspiring. I can’t even remember how boring my life was before I met you :)

    3. Jenna says:

      Thanks for this Carrie and for pointing me towards JSF’s and Beth’s articles, this is something I can definitely relate to, like so many of us, and have been thinking a lot about.

      • carriehorton says:

        Thanks Jenna! If you come across any other good reads or want to share some of your thoughts as well, I would love to hear them!

    4. Stacey says:

      I love is, and Shanna’s comment… can’t wait to share some in-person time with you!

      • carriehorton says:

        Stacey, you’re the best :) Thanks for leaving comments on my blog – I love it! I can’t wait to spend time with you…all the time!

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