The other day, following two weeks of solo travel around central Europe coupled with a temporary hiatus from all forms of social media, the one thing I was probably most pathetically excited for in returning to my home base in Paris was reinstalling my WhatsApp: to be able to satiate that socially conditioned desire to see that little orange notification button on my phone screen and open all the messages sent over the past weeks from closest friends; to finally reconnect with the world I had cut out during my self-imposed period of solitude. And then. That evening as I reinstall the app, anticipation rising (solitude gets to you after a while), I finally open it to find I can no longer log into my old account: everything from the past few weeks, and the past few years – all message history, photos, correspondence with interesting acquaintances met along the way or loved ones or lover, as well as a few of my contacts – gone. Permanently inaccessible.
Of course, it was not the end of the world. I still have most of my contacts, can still reach out again to the friends I’m still actually in communication with. But at that initial moment of rejected entry to my WhatsApp history, as much as I’d like to deny it (and as what may easily constitute the definition of an ‘overreaction’), I felt this strange sensation of the ground sucked out from under me… as though I had suddenly lost the gravity and weight of self-ness: the cognition of actually being me, in my own body, in the place I was sitting, in my corner of the world, with all the relations and social ties to which I am inextricably bound.
To give some context to this mother of overreactions, I had just previously been reflecting on the concept of memory and its role in giving continuity to our past and present selves, essentially providing a basis for the formulation of our conception of selfhood at all. I had recently come across an article, referencing an idea from modern psychology, suggesting that memory in fact constitutes the ‘crucible of the self’. The poet John O’Donohue, in his writing on transience as the one constant in our lives, elsewhere described memory as ‘that which holds out against transience’…as ‘the place where our vanished lives secretly gather.’ I had found a certain comfort in this description, and especially liked the reference to vanished ‘lives’ in the plural. Particularly in the place I found myself at the time of reading these words — alone in Vienna, a solo traveler surrounded by couples and families during the holiday period, on the road for the past few weeks in a state of self-enforced solitude (I’ll get to this later), living in Paris, a U.S. citizen, an Ethiopian-American, unable to recall the last time I was physically with my entire family, having spent the past few years living in South Africa and Zimbabwe, finding myself periodically in countries and contexts I never expected to be, a constantly revolving set of friends and communities, and recent shift in title from ‘boss’ and ‘diplomat’ to ‘poor student’ — I felt all the more drawn to the idea of memory as this shield against complete transience, this keeper of continuity.
Each time I delve into the bank of my own memories, whether by conscious intentional digging, something triggered by a scent, a song, an image, or just the regular intermittent infiltration of unexpected and completely random memories that surface from time to time with no evident reason as memories do, I often feel as though I’m peering into several separate lives, unconnected and unrelated from my own: characterized not only by different places and people but, perhaps most notably, by distinctly different conceptions of self and paradigms for interpreting the world. Despite being able to remember what I thought at a given time or how I felt, as filtered through the non-static and often unreliable medium of memory, I am always keenly aware of my inability to inhabit that same space again. And in this inability, I feel I can only catch glimpses of something that is not my own, inasmuch as I am aware of the fact that it is.
But even amidst this overwhelming sense of discontinuity that seems to taint most recollections of the past, the ability to still regain bits and pieces of it, in whatever form, provides some basis for imagining a kind of coherent whole out of all the separate parts. And for someone like me with the worst memory ever, to reach back every now and then through the potent medium of an old message or photo long forgotten – to be transported momentarily by that mysterious mnemonic power latent in certain physical and technological traces of our past lives – feels like something invaluable in this clumsy attempt at reconstructing wholeness. I am also not sure why this impulse to grasp at something complete and continuous even feels necessary in the first place, but I assume it is linked to what is probably a universal human instinct to make sense of oneself and to a broader extent, everything outside of oneself, through the roots on which we’ve been formed – both in the immediate context of one’s own life as well as roots that are familial, historical, etc.
Such was the mental state in which I found myself at the time of the WhatsApp incident. And so, given these impulses just described, my decision a few weeks ago to completely cut myself off in the first place from all the social networks that provided me with unfettered access to my ‘other lives’ so to speak – to all those relationships and memories that are a part of me but not a part of my immediate physical life context – may seem counterintuitive. In a way, though, I think it was actually one stemming from the same impulse behind my evident attachment to social media in the first place: connection.
For while these networks provide us with the channels for maintaining, strengthening, establishing, and mapping out our human connections, I think their oversaturation in our modern social realities can simultaneously hamper our capacity to actually be fully present in any of it. In this effort to always be connected, there is inevitably this stretching of the mind and heart to encompass the various spaces where connection is sought. It manifests in this feeling of being in touch with everyone all the time but concurrently somehow not really with anyone – including one’s self. This is not to say that love, or friendship, or authentic connection in whatever form, is a limited good, something we can only possess or share in finite quantities. But I do think the human mind’s capacity for attention is limited. In fact, it would seem that by definition the most profound forms of attentiveness require a certain level of restriction. For how can we truly give someone else, or ourselves, or our surroundings, this gift of attentiveness – one of the deepest manifestations of love – when we find ourselves stretched out in all directions, leaving access to only thinned out, fragile slivers of attention that we can allot to any one thing or person at a given moment?
I could be making assumptions here in implying this is a universal phenomenon, but at least in my own case, I couldn’t help but notice from time to time the effect that even the mere access to this technological world of social networks was having on me. It became even more noticeable while traveling: surrounded by inspiring street art in Berlin or magical architecture in Prague and finding that my mind was always only partially there – the other parts thinking about what I was planning to tell a friend about it or how I needed to capture the most beautiful places in photos to share on Instagram later or making a note to self to catch up with so and so while I had time. Even whilst my mind was there in Prague, it was simultaneously in Bangkok with my best friend, in Johannesburg with my nostalgia, in Harare with the work I missed or people I longed for – brought back to each of these places with each seemingly harmless text or glance at an old photo. Equally disconcerting was the realization that in my desire to share so much of my lived experience with other people or to just post it somewhere, the motivation behind my every action felt somehow less authentic. I began to wonder whether I would even live out my life the same way in the absence of these external social forces: to do things merely for the sake of doing them. I can’t remember where I read or saw it, but someone once spoke about societal fears of solitude as stemming in part from this need to constantly validate one’s own existence. It’s probably not a conscious thing someone would admit to or necessarily find true of their own impulses, but nonetheless, it seems fitting in a way to understand platforms like Instagram and Facebook (and, of course, blogs) as spheres that enable us to validate and shape our lived realities – to place them in a context in which they become subject to reaction and take on meaning beyond something that would otherwise be fleeting and lost to time and our own feeble memories.
None of this is inherently negative necessarily, but I do think it can become less benign in those moments where it detracts from the experiences we might otherwise have. For me, each time I allowed myself the distractions linked to these networks, I couldn’t help but notice a general sense of flatness to what I was feeling, as though a thin wall stood between me and the deeper emotions I wanted to access at times, the emotions that felt present yet never exposed in their fullness. And while I’m sure a range of factors can contribute to this, it felt quite evident at the time that much of that wall was constructed out of the consistent safety net of social distraction at my fingertips, and consequently, at the center of my thoughts.
Through my search for better words to articulate the numbing quality of these networks, I found an incisive description of the phenomenon by the writer Rebecca Solnit. In lamenting the “lost world” of the time before network technologies, she describes the loss of a world made up of two poles: solitude and communion, saying that this “new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.” I also resonated with words I stumbled upon in Krista Tippet’s book that “there is that window of choice, moment by moment, to go for distraction instead, to settle into numb…” I can’t remember the actual context in which she made this comment but it felt perfectly germane to the kind of escape allowed by social media, (in addition to television and the array of other media that so often take us away from our present moment).
And in fact, in cutting myself off from the choice to connect to these networks, I did feel a marked shift in the locus of my thoughts. I found myself increasingly awed by the banal things around me, forced to put forth more effort in keeping myself entertained from moment to moment with what was at hand – my beautiful surroundings, interesting strangers, my own thoughts. Perhaps less expected, I found myself actually feeling things with greater weight. It was as though, without the choice to retreat into the immediate yet somewhat false comfort of connection allowed by exchanging words or even simply an emoji with a close friend on the other side of the world, there was no longer a veil between me and my own thoughts. In the absence of a buffer, any inkling of a thought or emotion that may have otherwise been unintentionally (or sometimes intentionally) suppressed by an easy distraction was instead given free reign to unfold in its fullness, unencumbered and uninhibited. Meanwhile, bare and exposed by my own solitude, I was left with no alternatives but to actually confront whatever was there.
The thoughts or feelings that surfaced were nothing too shocking or unexpected, but nonetheless challenging to face at times. There are always those things you know are true but you may be ashamed to admit even to yourself, and so you avoid or ignore them and pretend like they aren’t there. A common one for many I think would be the fear of loneliness – or admitting to ever feeling alone at all (particularly when you are aware of all the love and support that surrounds you). Such admissions appear all the more unacceptable within the context of our social media saturated lives and the kind of taboo attached to the idea of solitude in general. I think Martha Nussbaum quite nicely touched upon the roots of some of these fears – fears that likely fuel our attachment to those outlets providing us with safeguards against the risk of fully seeing and accepting our own emotions. I found her framing of emotions particularly insightful in stating that“our emotional life maps our incompleteness”, explaining how “a creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them.”
In a way, it is actually extremely liberating to admit to one’s own dependency. Perhaps also counterintuitively, finding solace in solitude – learning to be content in one’s aloneness (as distinct from loneliness) – seems like one of the best ways to embrace this dependent nature and discover the most fulfilling application for the impulses born out of it. Ironically, the less I was surrounded by endless streams of digital communication with friends and family, the more I was able to actually feel the depths of my connection with individuals and find myself immersed in the beauty of that recognition. And the longer I went about each day without the usual mental distractions, the more I found myself forced to reckon with truths I so often suppress in fear of failing to meet my own expectations: the loudest and most recurring of which related to the mere acknowledgement of my connection and interdependency with humanity as a whole. For in this acknowledgement is felt the weight of responsibility – the beautiful yet overwhelming and in many ways painful weightiness of a reality that is there regardless of whether one chooses to engage with it. Herein, I found in solitude a necessary reckoning with the complacency and numbness I had allowed to replace moments that might otherwise have been spent in benefiting the world of humanity, another individual, or in simply elevating my own state of awareness about those things that are hardest to face but most necessary to grapple with as a member of society and the human race.
All this to say that, in my own temporary immersion into one form of solitude, I have come to better appreciate the power of allowing silence to replace chatter that might otherwise blind us to fragments of wisdom already latent in our own emotions and consciousness. For, as so perfectly put by the writer Wendell Berry, and as the most apt elucidation of my own experience, in solitude, “one’s inner voice becomes audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.”