Do we still know how to be by ourselves without anyone around or any digital device in our hand?
We treat our smartphones like external brains, an extension of the self we defer to in our most private moments. How many of us browse Instagram or tweet on the toilet? How many of us go to bed cradling our phone even when there’s a warm body next to us? And how many of us have accidentally dropped the phone on our face because we started falling asleep still holding it?
The digital age has made us omnipotent, physically in one place but mentally miles away; our presence is almost always tainted with absence.
For people who are isolated by geography or illness, the internet can be a saving grace and I credit it with saving my life in many more ways than one.
What’s more, it enabled me to remain by my parents’ side in Paris while my stepmom underwent further treatment for Stage IV cancer. I was temporarily back in the US but we communicated daily, swapping pictures and sweet nothings as family members do.
But opening my bowels is something I still prefer to do alone. This also minimizes the likelihood of my device going for an impromptu swim. And when it comes to dinner and bedtime companionship or a solo coffee somewhere, a book can provide mindful company.
While it often speaks to us, it does so silently, offering precious respite from relentless social media background noise.
To many of us, silence is daunting and uncomfortable.
Without a soundtrack, you can hear your thoughts as your mind meanders, jumps from one thing to the next, or focuses deeply on one issue. This can cause extreme discomfort, especially if you’re beset by a mental illness.
I spent five years in the throes of major depressive disorder, my sinister daydreaming seldom interrupted. Having lost not just my writing voice but the ability to listen to music as well, this made for cranial cabin fever as I contemplated the many ways to end my life. Much as I sometimes wished I could mute my inner dialogue, it resisted all attempts and would often keep me up at night. I also found that TV exacerbated malaise, probably because it’s so passive and I was yearning for human interaction and intellectual stimulation.
Books often resisted me, too. But I stuck with them, occasionally spending a long time staring at the same page until it relented and yielded its meaning. They kept my writing voice on life support until it returned. Unable to produce any of my own, I sought solace in the words of others.
In those five years, I had no choice but to learn how to sit with myself and push through the unbearable heaviness of being. Bereft of the ability to write, social media wasn’t much use to me. At the time, I would go to extreme lengths to avoid phone conversations and emails, clueless about how to be a human in the world.
Depression turned into solitary confinement.
Hardship made therapy, creature comforts, and travel unavailable: I couldn’t run away from myself.
Instead, I had to learn to listen to the only sounds that were left: the beats of my heart and the purrs of my cats, who were never less than generous with affection.
The more exposed you are to it, the less threatening silence becomes.
These days, I cherish its companionship and bluntness because it always points out what requires urgent attention in my life. And after almost seven months with little to no privacy, I value the time I get to spend on my own even more. Much as I adore my family, I sometimes need to be alone to recharge and not just at night when I’m in bed.
As the five years I lost have shown me, my mind doesn’t take kindly to life in a cage. To function, it needs to be allowed to roam and wander, unfettered.
Being lost in thought is necessary to letting your imagination take flight.
For example, there can be no writing without it, and solutions to problems don’t appear unless you allow your mind to connect random dots.
Silence, solitude, and quiet contemplation can also help you sharpen your intuition whereas constant stimulation can numb your senses and lead to a state of mild to extreme fatigue you can’t shake off. When you’re conditioned to fill every available moment with noise and distraction, you lose the ability to hear your own thoughts, much less listen to them.
We’ve turned social media into a habit, to the point that it’s become an addiction for some of us. While the internet can be a force for the common good, it also knows how to keep us hooked on inconsequential crap that doesn’t enrich our life.
It is so easy to lose ourselves and forget we still haven’t got a clue about who we are or what makes us tick.
Doesn’t the one person you spend your entire life with deserve your full attention every now and then?
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.