Self-generated Intimacy

I am at my 23rd of 40 days I’ve committed to abstinence from Facebook. It had been consuming my attention for 4 hours or more every morning before eating a solitary, late breakfast and getting dressed. I had sensed that my obsession was driving me further into isolation and further away from what I was seeking, in somewhat the same way that drugs, alcohol and other distractions offer temporary, superficial relief from a hidden angst which continues to return, again and again in repeating cycles. In spite of the allure of internet connectivity, I was not “logged in” to a site that could heal my feeling of disconnection.

In the first weeks of my excursion away from Facebook, I found myself binge-watching YouTube videos of talent shows, stand-up comedians, and news reports of ever-more distressing events. My problem turned out to be much more than just social media. I had to walk away from the glowing machine on my desk, fight off the urge to return to Facebook or any form of infotainment. I realized I was bored and needed to investigate this malaise to discover what truth about myself might offer some healing.

I stopped reading the news. I changed my morning routine to getting dressed and having deep conversation with my wife over breakfast before I even checked my email. I re-discovered the satisfactions of gardening, walking, yoga, and snuggle-hugging my wife, the only person I can safely hug during the pandemic self-quarantine. I shifted to interactive video conferences and impulsive phone calls to old friends. I sought out movies about relationships and webinars that offered answers.

One of those held a gem for me: don’t write your “to do” list, write your “to be” list. Who do I want to be? Where am I going as a human being and how can an electronic tool serve that journey? “What we’ve learned from coronavirus is the more we use technology, the more we actually want to be in person connecting to other people,” Dan Schawbel says. “It’s pushing us to be more human.”  

The Chinese character for crisis combines the ideas of danger and opportunity. The danger of projecting an essential part of our humanity into an electronic gadget co-exists with the opportunity to define right relationship for ourselves. I am grateful for the boredom that forced me to seek deeper meaning in how I manage my online experience. Writing this internet blog is one of the ways that I compile my thoughts into a clear and logical thread. This is helpful for myself, and perhaps for others.

People who study, think about and write about the use of digital technology have begun to focus on the root cause of internet addiction: loneliness, which could be defined as the fear of being lost, forgotten or abandoned. So many people are noticeably lonely that Stephanie Cacioppo is working on a pill that could alleviate the syndrome. The Campaign to End Loneliness, while searching for ways to make the internet more user-friendly, believes that “technology may be a means to connect with the outside world, or of engaging in relationships with others. We’re not suggesting that technology should be a replacement for direct human interaction.”

However, I have had the experience of both feeling lonely in the midst of 400 people in the same convention room, and feeling connected in the midst of 7,000 marching in a protest on the street. I have both felt closer to someone while reading their text message and more distant from a distraught person pressing at the edge of my personal space. I am convinced that it is not the interface technology or situation which determines my loneliness. It is a self-generated bias, filter or attitude that can be changed by me and only me, at will.

If this is true, then maybe I can generate its opposite, an experience of intimacy, at will. My big surprise in testing this assumption has been the discovery of an intimacy that is independent of what I do and entirely dependent on who I know myself to be.

Drilling down into my loneliness, I see all the traumatic events in my life that convinced me that I was and always would be separate, on my own, and a victim of circumstance, literally “surrounded” by hostile forces. I created my own bias, that I do not belong here, or anywhere. This kind of toxic shame is difficult to obliterate, yet I have been released from its grip, sometimes for days or even weeks, by deliberately asking my fears what validity they may have and by risking an alternative assumption that I co-create my experience of either solitude or amplitude as a matter of choice. (OK, I did do something, but nobody could see it, it was all done internally.)

Scientists have provided evidence that we are connected far more than realize, that our mirror neurons and the noosphere have us solidly, inescapably interwoven with the rest of humanity. Without a basis in personal experience, this kind of information can be dogma that has no impact on our engagement with external reality. Our internal reality stubbornly resists rational arguments for widening its tunnel vision until some unexpected challenge intrudes, busts down the fortress of self-protection, and we become vulnerable. Survivors of wildfire and hurricanes have shown us that authentic connection is our fall-back strategy for survival. If we know this, we can challenge ourselves to “get irrational,” dive into our feelings, focus on what we really need for our own nourishment, and build a strong core identity before disaster strikes.

Identity! Who I am, whom I see clearly as me — again — is far more important, far more permanent, than what happened in my past or will happen in my future. When I can see myself completely, without filters — admittedly, a big task, yet there are many, many paths to that goal — I can be fearless enough to allow others to see me intimately, all of which is incredibly healing of that burden of loneliness and separation.

The intimacy that I crave has been translated as “into me you see,” a condition that requires vulnerable transparency on my part, independent of external relationships, internet or otherwise. The core question for me now is, am I willing to put transparency on my “to be” list? How much discretion (pre-filtering) will I use in allowing myself to be seen? These are choices I need to make.

There is a powerful shift in my experience, my bias filters, when I accept myself and all my limitations, just as I am. Early on in my use of Facebook, I enjoyed the thought that the platform was a perfect place to “let it all hang out,” and I do enjoy those posts that do exactly that, but they are rare, an exception to the Pandemic of Posturing and Posing in which I was Participating (P.P.P.P!) and which was devouring my soul.

So there it is. As others pointed out to me as I departed Facebook, it is just a tool and how you use it makes all the difference. I still don’t know how to “use” it, and yet I do know that I have a choice about who I am just before I log in. Maybe that’s all I need.

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