Solitude and Presence: Photo Reflections on Natural and Digital Ecologies

My academic work, which touches on media, religion, and digital culture, is all the richer for having spent countless hours walking, sitting, and reflecting in the small oasis that we’ve come to call home.

Solitude and Loneliness

Solitude and Loneliness

On returning from a whirlwind, five-state tour of our family and friends’ homes during Christmas vacation of 2012, I dashed into the knee-deep snow that covered the forest paths near our house. With the chatter of holiday dinners and A-my-name-is driving games still ringing in my ears, I stole into the woods, gazed up at the white-heavy branches, and sighed quietly, “My trees…” While I treasure our too-infrequent family visits, I know that as much as I love the company of friends, family, colleagues and students, I also love being alone. Yet I know that solitude is a dying art.

Roughly half a century ago theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “Today, more intensely than in preceding periods, man is so lonely that he cannot bear solitude. And he tries desperately to become a part of the crowd. Everything in our world supports him.” ((Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1963), 22. Quoted in Bruneau, “An Ecology of Natural Mindlessness,” 60.))

How prescient.

Connected devices have spawned a culture of availability in which we are available to everyone but ourselves, with a spate of sensational headlines decrying the psychic damage such gadgets have wrought. In this context, I should not be surprised when each semester many of my “digital native” students choose – with no prompting – to focus their semester-long projects on Internet and smart-phone addiction, crafting experiments in which their peers agree to give up their networked gadgets. The experiments typically end abruptly with students complaining that they wish their friends would stick it out a bit longer, if only to help complete the assignment.

But students’ enthusiasm for getting back online is betrayed by a clear ambivalence about whether it makes them happier. This is the paradox of connectivity-as-isolation captured on pop singer Morrissey’s aptly-titled album Maladjusted. In the ballad “Wide to Receive,” a loner who longs to “turn on, plug in” waits expectantly before a flickering screen, crooning, “and I’ve never felt quite so alone as I do right now.” It’s a sentiment echoed by many of my students, and one that points to a disjuncture between our embodied lives and the commodified friendships we unwittingly cultivate through social media. One wonders if King would count the allure of virtual friendship among those “things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.” ((Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Current Crisis in Race Relations,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (California: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986), 89; emphasis added. Originally published 1958.))

At the end of the semester, as we discuss strategies and solutions for addressing the many concerns of digital culture, students understandably gravitate not toward institutional issues of policy and regulation, but toward personal solutions, such as adversarial design and information diets. Many respond most clearly to the simple suggestion to disconnect, if only for a moment. “Take a walk in the woods,” I suggest. “Meditate. Go jogging.”

These are not light-hearted suggestions. Sherry Turkle echoes a popular refrain in psychology in suggesting, “If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only always know how to be lonely.” To be able to accompany oneself, in solitude and silence, is an intensely contemplative skill that many are loathe even to attempt. Reflecting on our discussions, one student concluded her final paper with these thoughts:

We were asked in class if we are able to take time to focus only on ourselves and be comfortable with having “you” time, such as taking a walk in the woods or going for a run in silence. I was quick to say yes to the question initially because I run for exercise and it is one of the only times I am without anybody else. However, I had to remind myself that I cannot run without music from my iPhone. I have attempted to exercise without music and it feels unusually quiet and lonely. In my academic work, if there are not ear buds in my ears, there is a television show playing in the back ground to take my mind away from focusing on what is intended to be accomplished. I realized that every action I commit is supported through multi-tasking. I discovered that when I am away from other people I use multi-tasking as a coping mechanism so that I do not ever feel unaccompanied. For the first time in my life, I took into consideration that maybe I am scared to be fully isolated. ((Used by permission; emphasis added.))

Jung argued that many of our cultural pathologies stem from fear of our own unconscious thoughts – the vast “undiscovered self” that constitutes the subject of all authentic religious quest. ((C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (New York: Signet, 2006). Originally published 1957.)) This is the presence that draws near in those moments of restful contemplation that our hand-held devices so efficiently push out of reach. Yet it’s in those moments of focused attention that we find an equanimity that bolsters our resistance to – and may ultimately transform – the web of distraction that surrounds us.

The urge to connect is strong, however, and I claim no immunity. A few weeks after we arrived home from our holiday travels, the deep snow melted, vanished, and was soon replaced by a new, lighter coat of white. This time, I took to the path with my smartphone in pocket. Gazing down a long stretch of flurry-covered wood pallets, I snapped a photo and posted it to Facebook with a caption that read, “If I take a walk in the woods and don’t upload a photo to Facebook, did it really happen?” The “likes” rolled in, and I felt a bit warmer inside.

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