What on earth am I searching for, I wonder, as I open up Facebook, Instagram, the NY Times app, my work email, my personal email, my other work email, my text messages, Facebook Messenger (I just navigated away from this post to check it again) for the nth time, on loop, in a spiral? What?
Today, my ass was glued to my device. And yesterday, too. To be accurate, my eyes were glued to my device. My ass, technically, was not. But I might’ve been better served if it had been.
Again and again and again I interface with this lesson. I get sucked dry online. Decimated. Emotionally drained and psychologically whipped. I become ineffective and pulled around by bait and hate and wait – why?
Three Bags Full o’ Fear
This obsessive checking is different from healthy “what’s happening” kinds of forays into the world. It’s unavoidable, I think, that such things will result in feelings that we might classify as shitty. Reading about (or watching or hearing or however you get your news) injustice, tragedy, and division elicits strong feelings, if you’re not completely numb. Those could be feelings like anger, outrage, devastation, grief, and fear.
They are important to feel. And no, they are not typically comfortable. And yes, they often ache. But those feelings in themselves are not the shitty ache I refer to in my essay title. They’re not the shitty ache because they can lead to something expansive and connecting. They can be jumping-off points for one’s own unfolding.
The shitty ache is a disempowered, isolating, consumptive drive. And man oh man, do I ever have it after the abovementioned Tilt-a-Whirl through my apps.
Lots of things are going on when I do this. Part of it is looking for solidarity and community.
Please, sweet Jesus, I might think (and that’s an expression for me, not an actual plea to an actual Jesus,) let me find some evidence that people are not all losing their damn minds to the Nazis again.
And that’s okay, as long as I’m careful and honest about what that means.
But honestly – and I don’t want to gloss over this because it ain’t purdy – part of what I’m doing online is wanting to be right – to have my opinions and worldview reinforced.
When that happens, I get sidetracked and distracted. It’s like going into Target for a summer hat and stumbling out 60 minutes later, disoriented, with three bags full. Except all day on repeat, and also – these three bags are full of life-sucking force.
Three bags of things that don’t improve my focus or open actually my mind, that aren’t meaningful interactions with others, that don’t help me raise my children well, that don’t support me as I recover from my brain injury. They are three bags full of various forms of isolating fear: nagging doubts, comparison woes, and a panicky dread that We Are Doomed.
And if we are all imminently doomed – if the Nazis and heavily armed militias are descending or the nukes are coming – do I really want to experience that as a countdown through my device? Aren’t there actual people I’d rather be holding onto for the One Big Let Go?
Are we all clanging around with three bags full of fear?
Am I the only one this happens to online? Somehow I doubt I’m that special.
So what do we do about it?
I have seen people in online circles recently posting that it’s a sign of privilege to “take a break” from all this constant news and Nazi vitriol. How marginalized groups don’t get to just “check out” from it.
And I think I understand what they’re pointing at, and I think this is a place to be careful.
Denial of injustice and convenient activism are signs of privilege. (A ridiculous example of this is Lindsay from Arrested Development.)
But taking my face out of the hot-off-the-press breaking news and everyone’s opinion on it isn’t the same as denying or fair-weathered awareness.
It’s only abdication if I abdicate.
Conscious disconnection – checking out to check in
Ultimately, it’s about how I approach this separation. Consciously disconnecting and disentangling doesn’t mean I think it’s all going to magically go away.
Or that I am exempt from dealing with the ugly aspects of humanity.
Or that I am divorcing myself from these realities.
Consciously disconnecting allows me to maintain hopefulness when things seem hopeless.
It also helps me not overinflate my own importance and role. I am one of billions of helpful, loving, smart people. I am not so deluded and insular that I believe it’s All Up to Me or that I Have All the Answers.
But somehow, being online – an experience we call “connection“ – is one of the most isolating and disconnecting practices we can have. It takes us into a place of faux interaction and that is fine – as long as we know what we are doing.
Who Cares – and How?
I have spent a lot of time figuring out out what I care about and actively caring about it. And I can’t overly care if that active caring doesn’t look how other people think it’s supposed to look. I care the way that I can, the way that comes naturally, and the way that encourages me to grow and improve as a human.
And that requires a responsibility to myself cultivate some sort of inner world, so that I am not simply whipped around by the biggest loudest whackiest voices out there. I need to do things that heighten my understanding of my own inner voice. It is my conscience and my compass.
Whoever you are – please, listen to your own voice, too. Your inner voice – not the authority you hate or wish loved you. Not the what-I’m-supposed-to-be voice. But the actual you.
Regardless of what group you fall in, or self-identify with, your connection to yourself is yours to value. You deserve that.
We need to keep our eyes open, yes, but we need to keep them open to beauty above all. Otherwise, what’s all this for?
(Here’s some beauty. We No Longer Felt So Alone, by Lisa Telling Kattenbraker.)