Really Not Really Alone

Logan sent me a tweet a few days ago of an image which has since gone viral, retweeted and commented upon and analyzed. It was this image. In it, you can see the end of days, the beginning to every horrific piece of dystopian science fiction you’ve ever encountered. You might hear the Imperial March when you look at it. Maybe you just feel cold, like that kid who could see Bruce Willis (poor kid).

Maybe you’re completely unlike me, though. Maybe you see within those pixels an image of the glorious future, of technology spreading its benevolent arms until we’re tightly wrapped within them, choking out our last bre—I’m sorry. I’m ruining something good for you. My apologies.

Of course, I felt a similar sentiment when I looked at this brilliant cartoon last week. I laughed a lot, and then I set my jaw and felt intensely grim; I was laughing because it was all so damn true. The realism of our current world feels inescapable, and it feels especially so when fantasy and imagination don't provide the outs they once did. It’s harder for me to lose myself in a book or a movie than it once was, or to lose all sense of time staring off the porch at the swaying trees, their limbs stark naked in the late-winter air. Partly, I’m out of practice. But I feel the other part is that we’re not afforded the ability to be alone.

This could be what scares me so much about a bunch of slack-jawed goobers fawning over VR headsets in eager hopes of making WALL-E non-fiction. It could be what scares me so much about the current U.S. political climate. Don’t they want to step back? Don’t they feel crushed by all that forced connectedness? Don't they want to just take a breath?

Everything is constantly in our face, and even what looks like an ingenious technological escape to some seems like a Philip K. Dick novel to me. I don’t mean to sound like an old person on a cable news channel railing against the kids and their smartphones. I’m a millennial, though on the outer edge; I get the arguments my peers use for why they’re always looking at a screen. Some say it allows them this sacred loneliness of which I speak, that even in a crowd of distempered people then can retreat via apps. Others go the other way and use devices to wax poetic on the newfound ability to find community anywhere and everywhere. I get those arguments, too.

The problem is, it’s a trap either way. Just like so many of our political/social/religious modes of being, we’re fed two narratives and are expected to pick one. Rarely do we talk about a third thing. Leaving the party to read an article on your phone doesn’t make you anymore alone than the Oculus wearer. You’re still tethered, a string of data and ideas and intention swiftly and firmly grasping you from the end of the writers’ pen, from the coders’ fingertips. Where is the escape hatch, really? Maybe it was never there. Even the desert mystics went to commune with. Did even they get a moment away from God? Did they want one?

I’ve previously searched for a balance between connection and solitude, thinking that I could straddle the line between the high values I place on community and relationships as well as on my own needs as an introvert and generally “in my head” feller. But perhaps I was misguided. Perhaps I should’ve been striving not for a balance, but for a mode of living that supports both, sans dichotomy.

What would it look like to practice loving relationships in a community that encouraged your need for true solitude? What would it look like to be truly happy in a moment of complete disconnect, knowing that your appreciation of the inevitable reconnect was just as profound and just as worthy? Maybe what I’m describing to you sounds like a monastic experience, which it might be, but I’m thinking of something different. I’m thinking of a societal shift which would build us from birth to be completely at home in the realms of the "totally alone" and the "totally with" because it never believed they were two separate realms in the first place.

We’re jumping away from the practical here, I know. I said recently that I’m trying to give up cynicism for Lent, which is incredibly difficult when you’re constantly bombarded by reality, doom-flavored as it typically is. But I think that effort contains just the seeds I’m looking for when trying to figure out how to cultivate a nourishing and fruitful way of being for myself and others like me who wish desperately to be both tethered and untethered.

The seeds are those of hope, wonder, and love. When we allow ourselves to be fully opened in relationship with another, be it God or your significant other or your neighbor, maybe then we can be released—and feel comfortable releasing—into the void. We take the space walk without a cable because we are connected by something less tangible but more powerful. Your hope in who I am, my love for who you are, the wonder we have at how that can even be…that’s our breadcrumb trail back. We can go be alone, and know we’ll get back if and when the getting back is necessary. How lovely.