In a recent column he shares with Gail Collins, New York Times opinion writer Bret Stephens offered the following description of the internet’s effects on our ability, or often inability, to form meaningful community and a healthy interior life—noting the connection between the two.
“Social media has created the phenomenon of ‘Together Alone’…Only it’s the wrong kind of togetherness and the wrong kind of aloneness…The old togetherness taught people how to negotiate differences in communities they hadn’t chosen for themselves. And the old aloneness often entailed long periods of engaged solitude, like reading a novel or gardening or building a model ship. But the new togetherness allows us to select the communities to which we belong, mostly with people who like what we like, hate what we hate, and never challenge our assumptions. And the new aloneness often means scrolling among endless internet distractions without ever focusing on anything in particular. The result is that we now live in a world where people know neither how to be together nor how to be alone. It’s the ultimate recipe for unhappiness and bad behavior.”
While I’m suspicious of arguments rooted in some usually-fictional notion of “the good old days,” I’m struck by this idea of “Together alone,” with “the wrong kind of togetherness and the wrong kind of aloneness.”
This question of what kind of “togetherness” we’re after speaks to the complexities of belonging we touched on in worship Sunday. In Paul’s image of the church as a body, differences are not to be avoided, but counted as “gifts,” and reflections of the diversity and complexity of creation and the creator.
Yes, there is a place for finding those with whom we share much in common—that, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. But it becomes dangerous when these commonalities calcify and we begin to see difference as a threat. A true and deep sense of “togetherness” must be rooted in an appreciation for the ways we cannot help but be connected to one another, whether we agree with each other or not.
There’s a tension here that’s difficult to maintain, but essential to our long term spiritual health.
I’m not onboard with Stephens’ description of the “new aloneness” (I don’t think productivity must or should be the measure of all things), but I agree with his diagnosis.
I remember being told some time ago that two of the most important things we can do for our children as parents is help them learn how to be sad and how to be alone. We might also add that we should help them know the two need not be linked.
I think our faith has something to teach us about how to be alone that’s not rooted in productivity. Throughout the gospels, Jesus is said to have gone off to a “lonely” place to reconnect with himself, with God, and his calling. These times of respite and renewal seem essential to his ministry and the health of the community he shared with his disciples. Likewise, much of what we do as a church, as I saw it put recently, is a “beautiful waste of time!”
The pandemic has illuminated the ways in which loneliness can literally kill us. But it’s also revealed how important it is to have an “interior life” in which we discover our own inherent worth apart from others.
Human life cannot help but be some form of “together alone.” What we want from our faith and our faith community is help in finding ways to do and be these things that are life-giving and not life-denying.