I imagine many of us have seen the effects of an electronic life replacing a genuine one. One of the most common is to see people, both young and old, looking at their phones constantly when they’re with other people. And rather than being an indication of progress, it’s a symptom of our cultural imbalance.
Recently, at a burrito shop I saw a group of high school students who were all looking down at their phones. There was no talking, no laughing, and no one was eating their burritos. None of them were looking at each other and it didn’t seem like anyone was having fun. After a few minutes, they all looked up, glanced around, and started to eat, remaining as expressionless as they were while looking at their phones.
All of them seemed to be in their own world, where there didn’t seem to be much interest in their surroundings or in their friends sitting next to them. Of course, there’s nothing necessarily unhealthy about being quiet and introspective while eating burritos. But this one, small example is part of a larger pattern around the country. It now seems as though it’s more important to communicate electronically with people who are not near us rather than be with the people who are sitting right next to us.
Ask yourself: Who am I, really? How many heartfelt conversations have I had in the last week? The last month? The last year?
For some of us, these will be easy to answer, but I imagine for many, the responses won’t come so readily. Despite the claims that our technological world is bringing us closer together, in many ways it’s moving us apart. The act of getting to know someone well is not a quick process—it’s one that requires that we are physically with them. Likewise, getting to know ourselves intimately and understand who we are—is also not a casual process .
This is not to say that things like emails and texts don’t serve a purpose; they can certainly be used to stay in touch when we’re apart from our loved ones. However, without physically being with someone, hearing their voice, and seeing their expressions, it’s not likely we’ll get to know them well.
There are exceptions to this, of course, where people have established meaningful relationships with letters or through email. But the smiling and frowning icons that we attach to emails and texts to try to convey emotions are an attempt to express something through a medium that, at best, can only share feelings superficially.
The more we email, text, and tweet, the more we can want or even crave them. Superficial communication creates more desire for human connection because, ultimately, it doesn’t satisfy us. We then keep communicating superficially, more and more, continuing to look for real connections. But our need for meaningful communication continues to go unmet, and only keeps growing. We’re encouraged to believe that electronic communication offers us what we need, but ultimately it doesn’t—what is truly satisfying is real human connection. In essence, we’ve given up the quality of our relationships for the quantity of emails, texts, and tweets.
In our era of electronic communication, it’s also important to remember that in order to really hear someone else, we must first be able to hear ourselves. The overstimulation and lack of satisfaction in our culture, as seen in our reliance on electronics, is contributing to another important issue, one that has reached epidemic levels—we don’t know who we are.
To truly know oneself comes from balance internally. Think again about the question: Who am I, really? The answer isn’t necessarily who we think we are or who we were in the past. It also isn’t necessarily who our family or friends think we are or what they think we should do with our lives. Instead, truly understanding ourselves comes from internal clarity.
This discomfort and dissatisfaction of not knowing ourselves might not always be palpable—we might not think about it often or might try to push it out of our thoughts when it does surface. We might feel more comfortable, at least in the short-term, ignoring bigger and deeper questions. We might even take the advice so often given in our overstimulated world: keep busy to avoid the unpleasantness.
But in our too-busy world, continuing to be busy often has the opposite effect. Because we often lack an understanding of ourselves, we’re more likely to be attracted to things that offer us a short reprieve from our discomfort—things like the consumerism of buying things we don’t need or the short-term stimulation of electronic communication.
It’s urgently clear that we need to slow down and do less so we can begin to understand who we are. That we’ve lost a clear connection to ourselves is both a cause and a symptom of imbalance. This overstimulation affects the meaning and connections in our lives, leaving us unsatisfied and looking for the next short-term reprieve from the effects of our internal condition.
Knowing ourselves and having real, meaningful connection with others is an important antidote to the dissatisfaction of an electronic life.
Brendan Kelly is the author of The Yin and Yang of Climate Crisis and co-founder of Jade Mountain Wellness in Burlington, VT where he practices acupuncture and Chinese medicine. More information on Brendan can be found here: www.
By Brendan Kelly, L.Ac.