My Mom just gave me a clipping of what struck me as a simultaneously hilarious and disturbingly apocalyptic New Yorker cartoon this week. In it, two teenaged girls are lying on a bed, not looking at each other, each consumed with their phone. The caption has one of them saying: “When I make eye-contact for the first time, I want it to be with the right person.”
It’s time to face the fact that, on one level at least, we are in the realm of the disturbingly apocalyptic. We’ve officially reached someone’s twisted future vision of humanity (be it Orwell or the Jetsons or Murakami or whoever). The one level I’m talking about is how we interact with our devices. No doubt, future generations will have even more impressive devices than ours, but maybe they will be more skilled in how they wield them. We haven’t yet figured out the new manners around cell phones (do we use them in public, in stores, when we are in the midst of other conversations?), and many of us have experienced both of the new sensations of someone bumping into us who is walking while texting, and our bumping into someone else while similarly occupied (I speak from the vantage point of someone who does more bumping then being bumped into, so this is no holier than thou diatribe…).
I think the relational cost is a great one; that is, we seem to be slowly losing the capability of being present with others who are actually in front of us. But another great cost is that we are forgetting the ancient skill of how to be alone with ourselves. The folksinger Greg Brown wrote,
half the people you see these days are talking on cell phones
driving off the road & bumping into doors
people used to spend quite a bit of time alone
i guess nobody’s lonely anymore
‘cept you & me babe ‘cept you & me
It’s an interesting way of putting it. How can we learn to be more alone again? In Judaism, to be alone is code for being alone with G-d. And it’s true: sometimes when we are able to quiet the mind enough or set down the device, there’s an aloneness that makes room for others – both human and Divine.