By Dominic Stephen
To paraphrase the words of a close friend, we are often most predisposed to talk about our immediate environment. And the environment of UCU is undoubtedly quite immediate, quite present. It is an ever-relevant and timeless issue that I wish to raise, and also an elaboration and reflection on an article ‘Shut Up’, written by me a few editions ago.
The significance of securing a regular dose of space, peace, and quiet can often be forgotten, hurriedly pushed aside and replaced by more tangible and immediate concerns. More importantly, the widely-held assumption that extroversion roughly equates to greater intelligence and thus emotional or social ‘success’ has led to the unfounded belief that those who often enjoy their own company ‘lack confidence’ or ‘still have to come out of their shell’; these kinds of people are sometimes alienated and derisorily labelled as ‘loners’, ‘geeks’ or ‘shy’. We inundate our agendas and timetables with activities, meetings, and events, providing little time to be alone and amongst our own silence – as if solitude was something to be averted and feared, rather than a deep breath of fresh air, and a opportunity to unravel the knotted threads accumulated in our minds over the past few days. But these overlooked, yet invaluable considerations can be, with the aid of social alarm bells and environmental reminders, brought to the forefront of our attention for the best; and I can think of few alarm bells more rousing than the first week of a new semester at UCU. We should remember that aloneness does not equal loneliness.
We inundate our agendas and timetables with activities, meetings, and events, providing little time to be alone and amongst our own silence
The undeniable addictive distractions of Facebook and Instagram draw us in to such a degree that we actually feel proud after having finally decided to log out and direct our attention to more rewarding activities. But while the Newsfeed may be out of sight, it is perhaps not entirely out of our minds – a friend’s holiday photos from Indonesia are impressive, the food-porn that litters Instagram is superfluous, and the party to which we clicked ‘Attend’ is soon enough that we should probably start to think about a haircut or new shoes. An echo is left in our socially predisposed minds, an incessant fuzz of concern for how good others’ public lives seem to be compared to ours. We are then effectively never alone, since even on the rare occasion that we secure space for ourselves, social networking has left such an imprint on our thoughts that we cannot help but feel interconnected and reachable wherever we go.
Understood from the opposite side, not only are we more concerned with the lives of others, but our attention is gradually being turned increasingly inwards. With the ‘Like’ button on Facebook seen as some sort of barometer of social success, we are becoming adept at self-advertisement; through the ability to ‘Remove tag’ from unflattering photos of ourselves we can effectively manipulate our entire story, further perfecting our outward image. We learn to craft ourselves for public display; one might say that we prostitute our true selves for a fleeting moment of self-confidence and affirmation. The balance between our online and real lives is slowly changing, and with this shift we opt instead to commit more to a meta-life, rather than cope with the beauties and the beasts of genuine life experience. Our dependence on social networks may be contributing to a contemporary phenomenon of cyber-narcissism; our sense of Self is undergoing a strange and unhealthy metamorphosis, a type of egotism never before witnessed.
French philosopher and writer Albert Camus said that “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion”. I wonder whether Camus’ philosophy can equally apply to understanding the Self in our hyper-social context. I wonder whether the need to understand and, more importantly, to love others must first come from the understanding and the love of oneself. Admittedly, this understanding is not gained through a trivial dialogue with ourselves so much as through a sobering self-confrontation of deep-seated personal truths. But, nonetheless, if we are suspicious of the bliss that ignorance provides then we should see all understanding, however humbling it may be, as a positive result of these personal reflections.
Amongst the time-demands of schoolwork and the allure of an addictive online social utopia, the space needed for this elevating insight can be hard to find. And although each of us is bound by our own obsessions and dispositions, some prove less beneficial to our social, psychological and, dare I say, spiritual health than others. So – wake up earlier than most, and enjoy the liberating space of silence and solitude before the crashing of bedroom doors signals the start of the busy day; take a walk, breathe; make yourself a meal – it is a crafted creation, not just functional fuel. In the name of moderation, I believe that time spent alone is not necessarily time spent feeling lonely; that the transient orgasm of online applause should rarely be chosen over the raw emotions of authentic life-experience; and that independent thought cannot be a realistic expectation if we pay so little heed to ourselves as independent people. Disconnect for a while, and be free from the overstimulation that has become a way of life for the majority of us. There may be no Wi-Fi at a park bench or on a quiet bicycle ride through the forest, but you’re bound to find a better connection.