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Lonely among us

December 3, 2013 — 209 Comments

The holidays. For many, they’re not cloyingly sweet happyfests like on the Hallmark Channel. No, for a lot of people, ’tis the season to be lonely. Loneliness is probably as old as time itself but I suspect it’s more virulent now than in days of yore.

First, let’s get one thing straight: Being lonely is very different from being alone. You can be both, but not necessarily. You don’t have to be alone to be lonely, and you don’t have to be lonely when you’re alone.

Loneliness hurts, emotionally and physically. Several months ago, Mr. Weebles was telling me about a thread on an online forum he reads regularly. This particular thread was about doctors who work in the ER. One post was from a doctor who had a patient come into his ER at 4am with a triage complaint of “lonely.” That broke my heart—the idea of someone suffering so much that they needed to go to the ER. Were they in that much pain? Or were they desperate for someone to talk to, for any sort of companionship? Or both? I don’t know what happened to this person but I hope he or she is okay.

There have been times when I’ve felt so lonely that I thought it would crush me. Sometimes while I was living by myself, sometimes while I was living with others. I can’t decide which is worse. On the one hand, when you feel lonely and you live alone, the isolation adds to the feeling that you’re the only person left on earth. On the other hand, when you feel lonely and you live with other people, their presence only exacerbates the pain and disconnection. It sucks no matter what.

Technology has been a major contributing factor in making this modern scourge, this loneliness, so nasty. We’re competing for attention with iPods, smartphones, video games, and the internet, and we’re losing.

Admittedly, through the internet I’ve met excellent peeps I never would have known otherwise. The flip side is that although it can bring us together globally, it separates us locally. We stare at our phones instead of engaging with the humans around us (I have been very guilty of this). We play Candy Crush and send lives to our friends instead of looking people in the eyes and talking to them (again, mea culpa). Blogging, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, internet surfing, IM, texting, whatever. And how many of us have felt lost in the vast sea of statuses and comments everywhere? It feels terrible to be overlooked, and it can happen so easily when people have an unending feed of info. It’s a wild paradox, isn’t it, connecting with others and being completely disconnected at the same time.

Here’s another downside of the internet. It’s VIRTUAL. It’s as real as it can be under the constraints of the various platforms, but it’s not real life.

The virtual world gives you the luxury of portraying yourself as you want to be seen rather than as you are when you’re in the same room with someone, talking in real time. You can choose your words wisely. You can post only about the great things going on in your life (by the way, fuck you, humblebraggers), share inspirational quotes like you’re gunning for Deepak Chopra’s job, and craft beautiful bon mots that showcase your creativity and humor. They don’t tell the full story.

That’s the problem with social media. Unless you’re a witless putz or you genuinely don’t care how you’re perceived, you’re going to put your best foot forward. Anyone who has an online presence isn’t showing you the real deal, no matter how forthcoming they are. Because real life is messy and unedited. You don’t see them struggling for words and saying the wrong things, and you don’t have to experience their unpleasant moods. Take my posts, for instance—I’m generally not an ass online (shut up, I said generally). I may occasionally air my dirty laundry here, but I’m going to make sure it’s well-phrased dirty laundry, and I’m not showing you all of it. I still control what you see, even when it looks as if I’m baring a lot. Like a good strip tease.

Recently I saw a quote that said, “We shouldn’t compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reels.” But that’s exactly what happens: We compare our everyday lives with those highlight reels—the happy photos, the carefully cultivated personas, the thoughtfully written posts, the pithy tweets. It’s easy to start assuming that everyone else has it better, and at some point it might make you feel kind of shitty. And lonely. It’s not that misery loves company; it’s that nobody wants to feel like the only one not invited to the party where everything is amazing. We want to know that we’re not the only ones, that we’re understood and acknowledged.

As I said, the internet has served me extremely well overall. I’ve found so much wonderfulness in the friends I’ve made online, many of whom have become closer to me than people I’ve known for ages in real life. But technology facilitates feelings of rejection and neglect in a way that wasn’t possible before we were all connected by—and to—so many devices. So surf carefully, look around you occasionally, and take everything with a few grains of fleur de sel.

This has been a public service message from the Weebles Wellness Committee. Because Madame Weebles cares and doesn’t want you to wind up in the ER.