Roman Catholic Bishops in Italy have added some contemporary relevance in the fasting tradition during Lent: High Tech Fast. The faithful are urged to free themselves from the bondage of technology and gadgets, and refrain from surfing, emailing, twittering, texting … in order to prepare themselves for Easter. This could prove to be a penance much harder to practice than not eating meat, even just on Fridays, for texting could well be the newest form of addiction today.
At about the same time, I heard an interview on the CBC Radio program Spark. Host Nora Young conducted an interview with William Deresiewicz, literary critic and essayist, who has recently written an article entitled ‘The End of Solitude’.
Deresiewicz taught at Yale from 1998 to 2008. When he asked his students what place solitude had in their lives, he got this reply: “Why would anyone want to be alone?”
With the ubiquitous use of high tech gadgets, and the torrents of Internet social networks around us, we are caught in a web of connectivity like never before:
Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.
Not only that, the goal now seems to be to gain as much self-exposure as possible, to be visible. It seems that the number of friends we have on Facebook, and the number of hits on our blog directly leads to our self-esteem and our quality of self. The irony is, the pseudo and the virtual are substituting the genuine and the authentic.
What does friendship mean when you have 532 “friends”? How does it enhance my sense of closeness when my Facebook News Feed tells me that Sally Smith (whom I haven’t seen since high school, and wasn’t all that friendly with even then) ‘is making coffee and staring off into space’?
Deresiewicz notes that solitude used to be a desirable social value. From religious sages to the Romantics like Wordsworth, solitude is the channel one hears the still, small voice of God, or heed the beckoning of Nature. As modernism crept in, the literati turned inward to find validation of self, like Woolf, Joyce, Proust.
Then came urbanization and suburbanization. The generation that used to vegetate in front of the TV has given way to the child of the Internet, the networked self. And we no longer believe in the solitary mind.
So what does it matter when we have lost the moments to be alone? What have we lost?
First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct.
Also, the urge to be instantly connected has bred a new generation of skippers and skimmers, replacing readers.
… five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity
No wonder we’re told to keep our blog posts short if we want to attract readership.
With the loss of the capacity for solitude, we’ve lost the ability to cultivate depth of self and create independent thinking. Emerson said that “Solitude is to genius the stern friend.” Deresiewicz goes on to say:
…no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude.
The irony is, the more we are connected with the virtual world out there, the less we are connected with ourselves inwardly. But this is what’s valued nowadays, isn’t it, to be open, sociable, gregarious. But to maintain a sense of authentic self, we may have to sacrifice popularity, to be not so polite:
Thoreau understood that securing one’s self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings. He may have put his neighbors off, but at least he was sure of himself.
Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.
Maybe this is one meaningful connection we should strive for: solitude, introspection, slow blogging, quality thinking, quality reading, quality writing, quality self.
Click here to read the article ‘The End of Solitude’ by William Deresiewicz.
Click here to read my post on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in which she explored the privilege of Solitude.