“We live in a very tense society. We are pulled apart… and we all need to learn how to pull ourselves together…. I think that at least part of the answer lies in solitude.” —Helen Hayes
We live in the information age.
Computers provide the opportunity to process enormous amounts of information. The Internet makes the constant flow of information from anywhere in the world possible. Social media ties together information and relationships. And smart phones have made information and relationship accessible anywhere/anytime.
This adds many benefits to our lives: we are able to accomplish more, broadcast further, connect easier, and process quicker.
But left unchecked, this information age also has its downsides. Consider the fact that we are constantly, at all times, digitally surrounded by others. For the first time in human history, the possibility for relationship with others exists around us at every moment of every day… whether we are at work, in our homes, in our cars, in the grocery store, at our son’s baseball game, or on vacation at the beach. With the click of a mouse, the push of a button, or the flip of the phone, we are immediately rushed to a place teeming with others. And they immediately rush into our minds with reckless abandon.
Left unchecked, this constant stream of relationship can have some damaging effects on our lives:
- It becomes easy to constantly compare our lives to others. Because Facebook/Twitter/Google+ often only tell one side of lifes’ story, it becomes commonplace to compare the worst aspects of our life to the publicized best aspects of others. Add to that the fact that television paints an unreal, often over-glamorized view of the world, advertisements remind us of everything that we still don’t own, and technology changes at light-speed pace. And once you get lost in the comparison game, you enter a never-ending downward spiral. Reality has been replaced by fiction.
- There is a constant need to impress. It is human nature to hide weakness and champion strength. We so desperately desire to be well thought of and looked up to. As a result, when we are in the company of others, we try to look our best, put-together, and in control. We hope to impress others… often building walls to hide our true selves in the process. This new, constant stream of virtual relationship muddies the water. There is no longer any opportunity for down-time. We must always be “on-our-game” trying to hide our weakness and champion our success.
- It is tempting to overlook the people right in front of us. We live in a world where we can check to see what anyone else in our life is doing in real-time. There is no need to hear about it later. We can just check right now… and it will only take a second. Unfortunately, when there are only 2 friends in front of us but 200 friends online, it becomes increasingly difficult to focus on the 2. This temptation to see what else is happening in the world is very strong. And it often comes at the expense of the people we are sitting with at the moment.
- The urgency of communication becomes greatly exaggerated. In a world where information is easily accessible and interpersonal relationships are always available, the urgency of communication begins to accelerate. Just because our cell phones allow us to be reached at any given point of the day (by voice or text) does not mean that an immediate response is necessary. Our lives continue. Unfortunately, because the world has collapsed around us, there is a growing sense that not giving an immediate response to texts/e-mails is rude. It is not.
- There is great opportunity to become overly-dependent on others. When the opportunity to be surrounded and validated by others is constantly present, the opportunity to rely upon those relationships to an unhealthy degree also presents itself. If we can receive feedback and praise from dozens of people at a moment’s notice, the ability to find personal satisfaction diminishes. We lose the ability to find security in our heart and soul – because the rush feels so good when we receive it from others.
- There is unlimited ability to ‘sell.’ When relationships are always available, there is never a moment in the day that we can not be busy selling something to somebody. In a world that spins on the foundation of the dollar bill, this can become very dangerous. Whether we are selling material products, intellectual products, or just ourselves, the opportunity to sell is always available. The store never closes. Customers always enter. And if we’re always busy chasing the next sale, there is little opportunity for contentment to take root.
- Silence becomes feared. When social media offers the illusion that all of our friends are at all times living in constant relationship, silence is feared. Silence begins to take on the meaning of “missing out” or “loneliness.” When all the world is achatter but you are sitting quietly, it can be a fearful thing. Unfortunately so.
- Our hearts are never searched and our lives are never evaluated. The constant flow of relationships and noise around us often distracts us from the most important thing in our lives: our heart and soul. The fear of solitude, the inability to disconnect, the lack of training in meditation, and the difficulty associated in looking deeply into our heart and soul means that we rarely do it. In a world where virtual relationships exist around-the-clock, the discipline to search our heart is rarely developed.
Despite the benefits, there is danger in constant relationship. We are wise to consider what they may be. And we neglect time alone at our own peril.
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Susann, the Biveros Effect says
Yes, I totally agree with this. It took me a very long time to get a smartphone and I’m not that into social media. Unfortunately social media is something I must be quite comfortable with as I work in marketing and e-commerce. However, I try to make sure I spend a few hours a week with myself only – it’s the only way to make sure I have the time to do the things I am truly passionate about. And deep down inside I’m a loner, so I need a lot of time with myself.
Interesting piece, I connect with a lot of this
I’m a guy in my mid 20s living at home with my dad and sister. I work 40 to 50 hour weeks in a sales and service job (trying to save up to move out), Overall I’m a pretty social person on the outside, yet rather introverted and self conscious internally. At work, with friends and with family i’m known for being clever and enthusiastic, but I sometimes struggle with performance and social anxieties I keep bottled up. I definitely need moments alone to recharge, clear my head and have some decent chunks of time where I can think and live without the feeling of being constantly observed – or constantly being aware of someone else’s presence.
My dad works from home (he didn’t always) and doesn’t do a good job of separating his job, housework and leisure time. I love him, he’s a good guy and lets me stay under his roof, but can be annoying as hell to live with. Lately its been really hard to find those chunks of alone time because there’s always somebody home. I’ve communicated this to both my family, but they don’t really seem to get it. And It kinda bugs me that they don’t seem to appreciate the alone time they get while I’m working. In the last few weeks the stress has really started to take it’s toll and I feel a bit like a rat in a maze. Peace of mind, perspective, clarity – these are among the things I value most. But I also value the people in my life. And right now I’m pushing people away a bit because I’m not finding the time and space to really thrive and be my best self.
This article is incredibly relevant.
After being laid-off from a hypersocial job, I spent 6 weeks between employment virtually alone.
At first, I frantically I saq friends every day, maybe twice to keep from being alone until I realized I had become overly-dependent on my work indentity and work friends. I had no longer embraced solitude and all of its benefits as I used to. In essence, I was extremely burned-out from being “on” and pretending to be extroverted for over a year.
After the epiphany, I deleted all of my social media accounts and started choosing alone time more than social engagements. Within a week I saw the benefits:
– mentally clearer, a “quieter” mind
– talked much less about people and more about ideas and theories
– websurfed less
– increased creativity: I picked a couple of side projects back up
– increased attention span
– increased book reading
But most importantly:
– decreased the need for other people’s approval. I sought less advice and instead turned to my inner compass for guidance. This increased confidence in my decision-making and self-reliance.
In short, embracing solitude is has been a wonderful restorative.
I’ve never had a smart phone. Just a flip phone for short texting and actual conversations. People laugh at me all the time because of it. I know the important of being alone. Of not being connected to the world 24/7. It’s very much possible that illness, disease, mental anguish is connected to people’s lack of internal dialogue, solitude and quiet.
My work requires me to be out and about at different departments, away at trainings, etc. I already check in and out regularly via email and iMessage on my work provided iPad. But now I’m told I will be getting an iPhone to carry on me so I can be contacted at any time .. even though I don’t work in an emergency profession. They look at it as a reward for doing such great work, I’m told. But it’s not a reward to me. Just another burden.
Richard Anderson says
Thoughtful – and also true. Last year when my Iphone was stolen I made the descision to not buying a new one and instead use my old spare phone without wifi and internet – just talk ans sms. A decsision I have not regret. I recommend you all to try it. Have a nice day! : )
Excellent, thought provoking article. I would add just one point: what’s happening to the children? Does anyone actually sit down and talk to them anymore without checking their texts, etc? We talk about how kids have changed, more behavior problems, etc. More attention seeking behavior. Maybe that’s because they aren’t getting enough attention? I found that I was guilty of this myself before the digital age, so it must be rampant now.
You article convinced me – I won’t go straight to the iPad when I get up. I’ll stop checking fb and my email constantly. I hope.
Andy Barnard says
I am 100% guilty of this even as a Buddhist I neglect the person who is on the same room as me to focus on others who ate in need
I have a dumb phone. A prepaid tracfone for emergency’s. I like it that way. I check FB in the morning, on my laptop while I have my coffee and maybe a few times throughout the day, but am thinking of closing my account. I check emails about twice a day.
I am an extrovert and get energized by people around me…. however, even I need time to gather my thoughts.
With 5 children, I have enough *noise*, without technology.
Matthew D. Lyons says
Great piece. I opted out of all social media for a year. Since returning, I’ve had this nagging, and rather annoying, feeling that I am circling right back to the feeling I had before making my exit. Your post summarizes much of what bothers me bout how “always on” has somehow now become the norm. As much as I love technology and the ease of staying in touch with family and friends, I’m questioning – yet again – the overall impact on genuine relationships and my concentration.
This post is an excellent reminder. We don’t have to be plugged in all the time. Sometimes we feel the need to be…we don’t want to miss anything. What I have realized is that in doing so, you miss so much of yourself-your real self. In reflection, meditation or prayer, etc. And you miss so much of those who are physically present. I took a month off of social media a while back. I only checked email once daily except for work email. It was actually difficult for about 2 days….kind of a withdrawal period. Afterward, it was great – actually freeing. I spent time reading and investigating things I was interested in. I spent more time with loved ones and friends and experienced real alone time, not supplemented by virtual friends. It was good! Thanks for the reminder!
Nancy Darling says
I would like to subscribe but I can’t tell what reader to choose, etc.
Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
Joice Machado says
Here I am, in Manaus – Amazonas – Brasil (yeah, middle of the forest!)….reading you while my boyfriend is taking few days off to climb a mountain… your post came to me as a warning to understand and accept him and also not to be ashamed of my need to take sometime to me too. Sorry for the bad english and thank you so much for helping me to strengthen my point of view and our relationship. :)
On the last few cruises I went on, I first felt anxiety at the thought of not having a cell phone signal or internet while on the ocean. I calmed myself in the knowledge that I could pay an extravagent amount of money for a few minutes of satellite internet if I absolutely HAD to check my email on the ship. However, it was really nice (and relaxing!) to tune out the outside world, and spend time with the people I was with, and meet other people, and just “unplug.”
I wonder if I should start scheduling “electronic-free” time into my days, where I have no TV, no computer, no phone….
Steve Vitti says
Unreal. So on point and inspirational. Thank you one hundred times.
Lisa S. says
This is so insightful. Everyone needs to take the time to be still…live intentional lives…..your description of a virtual relationship is so correct, so sad.
“It is tempting to overlook the people right in front of us. We live in a world where we can check to see what anyone else in our life is doing in real-time. There is no need to hear about it later. We can just check right now… and it will only take a second. Unfortunately, when there are only 2 friends in front of us but 200 friends online, it becomes increasingly difficult to focus on the 2. This temptation to see what else is happening in the world is very strong. And it often comes at the expense of the people we are sitting with at the moment.”
And this is why I have deleted my facebook account. Thank you so much for articulating what I couldn’t quite describe. My life has become so much richer already in the last 2 weeks of not using FB as my default mode of communication.
Just what I was thinking when I permanently deleted my Facebook profile a week ago! Only you put it so much more coherently.
I have an English writing exam coming next week and after reading this article I’m like “whoa!” I enjoy reading this article and I don’t mind to say that I learned a lot from your writing so thank you and keep it up!!!!
As an elementary teacher I am constantly surrounded by children who require enormous amounts of attention, sometimes with all 30 voices chiming in at the same time. My job has me moving between classrooms and grade levels, so the expectations and personalities dealt with in each are different. I love my job, but at the end of the day definitely require quiet time. Many years ago I established a “10 min. of quiet” rule at my home. It is very simple. When a person enters the home after a day of work or school, they are allowed 10 min. of time alone with no one asking anything of them. Just that small amount of time to breathe and regroup made a great difference in how I related to my own family after a long day. With the prevalence of cell phones/emails now, I can see where I need to apply an “unplugged” rule to my day as well.
This was spot on, thanks for sharing it.
Ishak Latipi Mastan says
Very well written. It gave a slap on the face! But like Jonathan Mugan said >>> “I should follow this guy on Twitter.”
Your post resonates so deeply with me!! I feel like I don’t even know what to do with myself right now. I will be reading this post again and again and sharing it with as many people as I can. I love how you are not attacking technology but rather opening up the door to allow people to see just how much better our lives can be if we would only unplug a little bit more. I recently posted on my website about why I am not on facebook and you have beautifully articulated so much of what I wanted to say. I love reading your blog! Much love, peace and lentils.
Lisa @ Just here. Just now. says
I think this is so important. I’m super introverted to begin with, and I didn’t realize that the whole Facebook/Twitter thing was something that I found so draining. I’m still “alone”…yet, not really. I started doing Unplugged Sundays and I feel so much more connected (this time, to myself) and present.
Thanks for the great post!
“Unplugged Sundays”-love it!
Uphill Struggle says
Thank you for this post – time alone is SO important! Solitude is great for reflection, personal growth, sanity and mental health. It concerns me that young people in particular seem to be becoming more and more uncomfortable with being alone.
Solitude builds confidence and self-belief. It makes you more resilient. A little bit of loneliness helps you to get to know yourself better and to like yourself, too!
Time alone is crucial to the building of self-esteem, makes you a rounded person, and balances out the constant stream of incoming communication in which we normally live. I’m a firm believer that if you don’t like your own company, how can you expect others to like your company, too?!
It’s true. For me, my alone time is when I can get alone with my Bible and journal.
Often times, I found myself picking up my phone and responding after it buzzed.
Last night, I could feel God’s urge to finish Exodus, which I was only halfway done with, t like 2am. So I FINALLY turned off my phone so the huge desires to check it would go away and finished it. If I had made time for my phone, there is no way I would have finished it. Later when I turned my phone back on, it turned out just to be my friends tweeting.
Yan | Towars simplicity says
Thank you Joshua. This post resonates deeply with me. As someone new to blogging and twittering and everything else, I see danger lurking. I appreciate the timely reminder. I am currently working on a post of my own to explain why I intend to disconnect from several internet streams; I will make sure to link back to this post. You speak the truth.
Excellent! You have put into words what is so troubling to me about “staying connected”. My how far we’ve come and not without a price! You’ve given me much to ponder and it all started with, “we are constantly, at all times, digitally surrounded by others.” I dropped out of facebook last year and I’m happy to say I don’t know (and have no interest to know) what a “smart phone” is. My struggle is with checking email when I feel restless. When I get in those spaces, I can feel myself being bound to it. I’m looking forward to finding peace in that place.
Faith | Minimalist at Home says
I wonder if part of this issue goes back to our personalities. I’m more of an introvert and I crave alone time. (Living in a household of 10, I also crave physical time alone too.) Therefore, I am not drawn to things like Facebook and being constantly attached to Twitter because it makes me feel very unsettled.
Do you think our personalities play a part in this or do you think it is more a factor of this digital age we’re living in?
Jenny @ exconsumer says
I’m more introverted too Faith, but I still check in on Facebook and Twitter regularly throughout the day. That said, I like (and need) having some time each day where I’m completely unplugged.
And if I’m face-to-face with people, I always leave my smartphone in my purse so I can be fully present. It’s always irritating to me when I’m with someone in person and they have their phone face up on the table, constantly checking it for…??? Who knows what.
Radiomom Rhetoric says
With a job in the “public” one wouldn’t guess I am introverted too…but I am. Maybe it comes from having to always smile big and be happy around people-and generally yes-I am very happy-but sometimes even that gets tiring. I also check Facebook -mainly while at work (where yes-it is OK and encouraged to interact with listeners) and when I leave, I rarely check it. I don’t have work emails sent to my smartphone because I figure when I am at work, then I can work. When I am at home I belong to myself and my family.
Completely unplugged is a definate MUST for me each day. Great post Joshua!
Socorro Benz says
Great post. A few of the points you wrote about really hit home.
Jason @ Stop & Breathe says
Your point regarding the urgency of communication is a great one. Not long ago a family member became insulted when I didn’t return their phone call immediately after picking up their message. The convenience of our communications age has led people to expect certain behaviors. I find the same thing happening to me when I work too much, and so I regularly give myself phone free periods or days. It was challenging to do so at first, but once you get past the feeling that you’ll miss out on something, it becomes quite liberating.
Robin Johnson Simpson says
Love this, Joshua! I wrote a blog post a while back on facebook and twitter- the article echoes many of the concerns that you raise here.
Having just read The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman, I’ve become aware of the fact that solitude is a luxury that not everyone can afford. We’re lucky that people generally only overwhelm us digitally when many people in other countries are overwhelmed physically at all hours every single day of their lives. But at least that physical closeness is often a good thing, and they may not feel overwhelmed if they’re used to it.
Sometimes I just refuse to check my email / texts / voice mail for awhile (a few days, tops). I like to pretend that if I haven’t seen it, it doesn’t exist, or at least people can’t be upset if I don’t respond quickly. Of course, they don’t know I haven’t read the message at all, so maybe they do feel ignored :P
A few years ago, I decided I did not need to answer email or voicemail immediately. If I’m working on a program or report for one client and I get an email from another, I finish what I’m doing and then respond. While writing, I close my email and twitter. There have been zero complaints that I am not instantly available. That’s an unreasonable expectation and no one expected it but me. As an added benefit, I am far more productive when I sit down and work uninterrupted.
Bill Tozier says
Sorry, I cannot buy it. Historical exceptionalism fallacy.
My grandmother, growing up in a tiny Slovak mountain village in the 1880s, was surrounded by people comparing their lives to hers. The cultural importance of “keeping up appearances” and and trying to impress others was huge. Even in a small village, there were no doubt “unremarked” folks, the outsiders and edge cases who were either shunned or taken for granted, even though colocated.
Look at every one of those things on your list, and think of how it applies to a family reunion or a church congregation or a factory floor. We are no more “surrounded” by people now than we were when we had to walk past them every day to draw water from a well, or to go sit in a church with them three or four times a week, or to go stand next to them on an assembly line for 12 hours a day, six days a week.
laura m. says
Bill, I totally agree and I think there is much less physical contact now days. Email and social networks abound. Families are smaller and miles apart. As for time alone: I shut off phones in the evening and turn them on in the morning. I leave the answering machine on all day and return calls when I’m ready. Also the cell phone is rarely on and very few have our number. I don’t get involved with social networks as I find it a waste of time.
Bill, I hear what you are saying.
But there is a difference between being surrounded by actual people (as your grandmother was) and virtual people (as we increasingly are). Regardless of “public faces”, you will get a fuller and healthier connection with a person you’ve actually seen and spoken to.
“Social” networks online really do steal from real social connections.
Brandi McGreevey says
As a writer/composer I need an extreme amount of silence and time alone. I have had to train friends and family to respect that time by continually telling them I only answer email and phone messages once a day at the end of the day, and that I NEVER check my email or facebook on the weekends. It’s taken almost a year, but they are finally beginning to understand.
Kudos on this and the rest of your blog. I found minimalism while at the Watermill Centre on a performance research residency. Your blog is an excellent reminder to me that I made the right choice.
Joel @ Freeing Truth says
You’re right on track with this one. It’s hard to recharge with so much distraction around us. At least for me, I regain my energy in solitude, and that can be broken with the constant bombardment of information.
YES YES YES YES. I must get my tween-age children to read this post – you have said everything I am thinking but oh so much better. Thank you :)
Mohamed Tohami | Midway Simplicity says
I totally agree with you Nicole. Joshua has beautifully said what we all are frustrated of, but don’t know how to express.
Francesca @verriorganized.com says
I second that! Thank you Joshua — hit it right on the head, perfectly. :)
I third that! But how to get my children and husband to read this and understand the importance of it! They would be too busy checking their FB, twitter, texts and email!
Mash Bonigala says
Great article and I agree 100% with it and would embrace the tenets of it. However, to answer the question of how to get some who is too busy with FB Twitter, G+ etc, I would ask, how did you get to this article in the first place.
9 times out of 10, I would wager some one on your social network shared it (that is how I came upon it). So social networks are great and a necessary evil but as Joshua says, if it is “left unchecked”, it has it’s downsides. Balance and retrospection is the name of the game I suppose.