Surgeon General’s Warning:
Constant Connection Can Make You Feel Very Alone
by Brittani Sonnenberg
Illustrations by Emily Eisenhart
One of the most pleasing things about watching period dramas, like “Mad Men” or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” is basking in how far we, 21st century citizens, have come. Look at the Draper family tossing their trash on the grass after a picnic! And all the smoking! Or, My God, women had to wake up early to put on makeup so their husbands would think that’s how they always looked!
How will period dramas in 50 years, on whatever futurist devices are in vogue, depict us? My guess is that our great-great-grandchildren will shudder at how we spent most of our lives online, thinking we were living, the way we now shudder at cream-of-mushroom-soup casseroles and TV dinners, that frighteningly processed way of eating. (You know, the one that was supposed to handily liberate women from the kitchen.)
If “slow food” and “farm-to-table” movements serve as necessary correctives for the food industry, what might offer a similar return to savoring and slowness when it comes to our digital lives? I’m not suggesting we bring back the modems from the mid-’90s. (Remember the sweet sound of dial-up?) But I do think it’s crucial to reflect on the hidden costs of convenience and connectivity. Is it possible that the abundance of options the internet offers, to present and consume the most flattering versions of ourselves and others, blinds us to an abundance of gifts in our own broken lives? In Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” he sings, “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
Let’s be honest: Cracks are scary things. Dark, craggy and unpredictable, cracks in 2019 take the form of unscheduled hours, time alone and no “likes” to reassure us. How can the light get in if the “likes” can’t get in? Over the past several months, by making deliberate choices about how and when I choose to be online, I have found that three things have helped me snuggle up to some of those cracks and chasms. Taking these steps has made me feel much more free, happy, empowered and, ironically, connected — not just to other people, but to the sky and the sidewalk and the green parakeet perched on a telephone wire. And, most importantly, to myself.
The approaches I’ve come up with aren’t prescriptive for anyone else, and they will undoubtedly shift for me. As one of my favorite writers, John O’Donohue, puts it: “There are no general principles for the art of being. If you attend to yourself and seek to come into your presence, you will find exactly the right rhythm for your own life. The senses are generous pathways that can bring you home.” What parts of your life feel uncomfortably crammed-in to you? Where might you welcome a few cracks? Here’s what emerged for me:
Social Media Reminds Me of Summer Camp
A lot of my closest friends loved camp. I hated it. But even more than hating camp, I hated the idea of myself as a camp-hater. So each year, when new brochures arrived in the mail, I would decide that I just hadn’t been to the right overnight camp. My parents would generously pack me off to another weeklong ordeal of crafts, cots and social anxiety, and I would hate it all over again.
Cracks are scary things. Dark, craggy and unpredictable, cracks in 2019 take the form of unscheduled hours, time alone and no “likes” to reassure us. How can the light get in if the “likes” can’t get in?”
This has also felt very true of social media for me. How I long to love Instagram, Twitter and Facebook! And just as I yearned to be one of the anointed campers who became close friends with the über-cool counselors, I have yearned to cultivate a chatty, casual, irresistible online presence and to adore reading other people’s posts, to revel in the wittiness and gorgeous photos and ironic asides. Instead, I go online, check to see who has “liked” or commented on my posts, read a few other people’s contributions, while inevitably comparing myself or my life to theirs, and then feel overwhelmed and depressed.
So many beautiful, important things happen over social media these days. The #metoo movement. Liana Finck’s amazing Instagram cartoons. That grainy, moving Facebook photo of my dad’s high school basketball team. But admitting to myself that these lovely transpirings can transpire without me has been immensely freeing. I haven’t deleted my accounts, but I only spend a few minutes on them, once or twice a week. I want my days to be full of what shakes me alive and inspires joy and generosity in me, not what makes me grouchy and petty and middle-school-y. I may yet ripen to a social media identity that feels great to me. (If you’re looking for a wonderful coach on these topics, Claire Campbell, at the Writing Barn, offers wonderful, personalized workshops on an intentional social media presence.) But for now, I’m happy to spend my days doing other things, the way I always really wanted to spend my summers reading Nancy Drew mysteries.
Being Cool With Being Unavailable
This past December, I embarked on a radical experiment: I tried checking my email at the end of each workday, not the beginning. It felt terrifying. What was I missing? Who was trying to reach out to me? How would they ever forgive me for not responding promptly? But I figured, (a) my phone number is at the bottom of my email, in case anyone ever really needed a response, and (b) there are worse reputations to have than that of a slow responder. So now I begin my email time — at 4 p.m. — by tending, first, to the people I need to write back from the day before. I reread their messages and then answer, trying not to rush. When that’s done, I slowly go through any new messages that have come in, and for all but the most urgent, I put them on my list to write back the next day.
I can’t tell you how much this practice buoys my mood. Email is an emotional, complicated space. Bills perch upon work queries, which perch upon forwards from your great-aunt, which perch upon birthday invitations. Answering email requires shifting roles — professional, personal — at lightning speed. Imagine walking into a small room and that great-aunt, your friend with the birthday, the prospective client, and a guy from Texas Gas all run up to you at once and start yelling enthusiastically, with lots of arm-waving. You can smile at all of them, hand them a business card, and leave the room. On the business card, it just says, in very pretty cursive, “Thanks! I’ll respond when I’m ready.”
Look, obviously this isn’t going to work if you’re in a career where next-day responses will get you fired. But even in that career, what, of all your urgent tasks, do you consider urgent because they truly are time-sensitive, and what do you consider urgent in order to make yourself feel more important, needed and necessary? Which brings us to number three:
Making Peace With Your Own Unimportance
This is the biggie. This is the scariest crack. In fact, it might be the only crack there is. When I began to crave less screen time, but wasn’t sure how to go about it, I also had to come up against this glaring discomfort: I go to the internet to feel like I matter. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s the human drive for community and affirmation. Unfortunately, I often felt the opposite after an hour or two online. Yet when I began to contemplate a life that was largely offline, an alarm system went off.
Are you crazy? You’ll vanish! What about building a creative community online? What about finding an audience? That’s where everyone is. You can’t just wander off into the woods.
I am a 37-year-old woman. I live alone. There is the anxiety, with aging, and technology, and being female, and an artist, that disengaging online equals disappearing from life. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my offline life — my writing group, my choir, my walks, my books, my friends, my writing — support me deeply. And as much as I would love to become an internet sensation, and get an amazing book deal, and never have to lift a freelance finger again, I am not desperate for any of that. My life is full when it is full of cracks. Hours unplanned. Scant email. Sundays that sprawl out.
I want my days to be full of what shakes me alive.”
Apps want us to share everything now, with all of our “followers,” but what about the deliciousness of keeping things for ourselves? Savoring the photo op as just that — an opportunity, to look at, and drink in, and keep walking? Or tucking away a story to tell friends over drinks instead of telling it online? Sharing is exquisite, but it is also tiring. We need restorative moments, too, when the only way we share something is through a small, mysterious smile that someone else on the sidewalk sees and wonders about. The beauty of a stranger’s enigmatic delight is the lilt of a language we can’t speak: enjoying their unknowability, and our own, as a deepening mystery, and not a loneliness that needs to be scrubbed out.
My Favorite Books on Slowing Down and Living Offline