My previous post explored the meaning of “alone together,” a phrase used in, among other places, Arnold Lobel’s story “Alone” in Days with Frog and Toad. In the Center’s annual workshop for educators this week, we watched a video of the story and talked about the ways solitude is viewed in our society.
Our society tends to devalue solitude, associating being alone with isolation and loneliness. Eating dinner out or going to the movies by yourself, for example, can make you an object of pity. People often assume that you aren’t choosing to be alone. Contemporary culture stresses busyness and social activity; spending time alone is seldom seen as an important priority.
For some, the demands of contemporary life make choosing solitude impractical or impossible. For many others, the world of endless online interaction generates a “fear of missing out.” Even when you don’t even want to do what it is you see images online of other people doing together, looking at these images can make you feel lonely. Moreover, we can feel an incessant demand to stay “connected”online; the constant pinging of our phones can prevent us from really experiencing solitude.
However, as psychologist Sherry Turkle concludes in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, “You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments.” She observes the ways that the need for constant communication isolates us because it leads to a discomfort with solitude. When we feel relentlessly compelled to be in touch with and available to other people, we develop anxiety about being by ourselves without always reaching for our phones or finding other ways to relieve the pressures we experience.
As a result, we begin to turn to other people primarily in order to alleviate our anxiety. We therefore fail to form authentic relationships, in which we can truly reveal ourselves to each other, because we are just not comfortable with ourselves. Our social media presences can exacerbate these feelings of insecurity because we know that our virtual personas are not wholly accurate depictions of who we are.
In this sense, Turkle contends, always being connected makes us more and not less lonely – rather than just “being ourselves” with our friends, we start to present only carefully curated presentations of ourselves.
This makes me wonder about what “connectedness” really means. We say we are always connected, meaning we are able to communicate with other people online, but do we feel connected? Can being “connected,” in the sense of being available online, actually lead to less connection? What does it mean to feel connected to other people, and does the virtual world enhance or detract from those feelings, or both?
This will be my last post until fall as I am taking the summer to work on two new writing projects. Hope everyone has a healthy and happy summer!
Jana Mohr Lone is the director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, and her most recent book is Seen and Not Heard.