Take a moment, just one. Hold your breath. Now, breathe out. In this moment, everything changes.
Where are you? Are you sitting at a desk? Are you on a train, reading this on a tiny window of pixels, each letter programmed and packaged and silent? Are you on a couch, with friends, watching waves crash onto millions of years of crushed glass and stone? Did you wake up today and think, “why am I doing this?” did you think “I’m in love with them and I don’t know what to do” or maybe “this time will be different”. How often have you thought about the fact that every molecule in your body is constantly being altered, physically? That you are, in a real sense, a different person, second by second, losing cells, growing cells, a mass of bone and muscle and brain, drifting through time in one direction, decaying and building and living and dying all at the same time.
It’s an awkward fact that loneliness is a chronic and almost singular condition of the last two centuries. Before that most people lived and died no further than a few kilometres. Everything a person saw and felt and thought and experienced happened all on the same patch of ground. You knew your family, you knew your community, you went to a special building and talked about some invisible presence that bound you together and to the world. There was brutality and illness, poverty and horror, but also, a sense of place. A sense of understanding that where you were, who you were, made sense. The universe had a structure and you fit into it. You were made for it.
Now, we eat food that can literally come from the other side of the planet, we press small levers and light comes as easy to us as water from a stream; the whole world is made by thousands upon thousands of hardened hands, attached to people whose lives we can only guess at. We live long lives and we run cables deep under the sea and the whole world is right there, on a screen, controlled, deconstructed, catalogued. This screen is our new home. We are linked, we master time and distance, we have made ourselves a suit of armour made of information and with it we give ourselves comfort. It’s a suit that says “here is where it will all make sense”.
But it doesn’t.
Slowly, day by day, in quiet moments, those moments when you click that link one more time, when you make those coloured box glow and tumble, when you spend another night in front of that ocean of data, you feel like something is missing. You realise that information, the great defensive weapon of the modern age, only works for what is outside of you. It can’t provide true joy, or memories. What you do feel from it, comes from its reflections of the real world. Photos of loved ones, events in the lives of people you care about and even still sometimes like you might be listening to a sea of empty voices, shouting into digital nothingness.
In the end, it’s still you, with a screen, looking at something else.
Think about your past, the great joys of your life. The times where it felt most like you were really here, a person, on this planet. Those moments where it was as if you were connected to some unseen thundering current of life and energy, pouring through your body. Those moments that meant something to you, the ones you’ll carry with you forever. Was it when you commented on something online? Or tagged a photo? Or posted a selfie? Or clicked that button?
It’s easy to get confused by the metaphor of the brain as a computer. It can be a useful way of understanding ourselves, but it’s just a metaphor. A tool. People’s brains are also like trees, or ants, or galaxies or infinitely small systems of chemicals flowing through channels like a great river broken into ten trillion tributaries. We’re all of these, and, really, none of them. A brain is like a brain. A person is like a person. When you feel those moments of joy, when you feel connected to other human beings. When you love, or hate, or are scared, or overwhelmed or excited, it’s you in the world and, tellingly, a lot of the time, it’s you with other people. It can’t be simulated, and the image of it, the pixelated version, can’t be more than a reflection of what life is. Because life and people depend on immediacy. They depend on you and other people, together. It’s all right there. In front of you. Not un-friendable or controllable or stable and contained in a photo and a small bio. It’s real just like you, with all the messiness that implies.
Technology can help with loneliness, but it is also an excellent cause of it. So take a moment. Take a breath. Look around and think, is your life going to be a memory of what you did, or what you saw, through a screen?
This was written as part of the Take Good Vibrations to the World Campaign found here