It’s not just that this technology allows us to stay “plugged in” all the time, it’s that it gives us the sense that we are tapped into something greater than ourselves. The narratives of meaning that have always filled our lives with justification and wonder are multiplied endlessly and immediately for us in songs, TV shows, online communities, games, and the news. This is the electronic buzz of the twenty-first century. And it is suffocating.
The person I’m most uncomfortable being alone with is myself. And that’s okay, because I’ve become very good at avoiding myself. For example, if I get stuck alone on an elevator, and I start to feel that anxiety, the dread of having to examine my life—even for a minute—I just take out my phone, and poof! it’s gone. Or if I sense that I need to have a heart-to-heart talk with myself about sin or doubt or fear, all of a sudden I remember that it’s my night to do the dishes—and I can’t do the dishes without listening to a podcast.
Self-avoidance is probably my most advanced skill set. I’ve developed it over the years in response to the burden of being alone, which can bring up so many unsettling truths. Of course, I have plenty of help from the rest of society. I’m always being encouraged to read something, to do something, to watch something, or to buy something new. It’s an unspoken but mutually agreed upon truth for modern people that being alone with our thoughts is disturbing.
A friend once described a similar feeling of existential dread to me. He said it would hit him only when he woke up in the morning. Sometimes he’d feel like killing himself. It wasn’t something he shared with friends. But he’d get this sick feeling—like there’s no point to any of it—every morning. He said he needed something more to get him up in the morning. My friend could stave off this sense of hopelessness all day, except for those few moments right after he woke up. Lying in bed, he could feel the pressure of being alive constrict his breath. But once he got moving, drank his coffee, watched the news, and went to work, he was okay. He got swept up into the movement of the day, as most of us do.
The beauty of using my iPhone as my alarm clock is that when I reach over to turn it off I’m only a few more taps away from the rest of the world. Before I’m even fully awake I’ve checked my Twitter and Facebook notifications and my email and returned to Twitter to check my feed for breaking news. Before I’ve said “good morning” to my wife and children, I’ve entered a contentious argument on Twitter about Islamic terrorism and shared a video of Russell Westbrook dunking in the previous night’s NBA game.