Isolation in a Digital World
It started with a simple suggestion.
When I was teaching in Italy two summers ago, one of my host Dads suggested that I check into a nunnery. Something told me this wasn't a compliment. I didn't think spending all day with 8-year old Italian children had made me that wild, but who knows. Then he clarified,
“I recommend it for everyone. Silence can be good. We all need to be alone sometimes.”
Those words stuck. Not so much the nunnery part, but being alone. Up to that point, solitude had been a bit of a foreign concept. In college, I was pretty social and regarded as an extrovert. That summer too, I was constantly surrounded by people: at camp with students during the day, at home with my host family at night, and at various destinations with camp counselors on my travels in between. My sole alone time was before going to bed or in the shower. He's right, I thought. I could use some alone time.
Since then, I've held an odd fascination with isolation. I'd dream of going on my own “Eat Pray Love” sabbatical. I found myself leaving a lot of social functions early to be alone. I arranged my current living space so I could spend a lot of time with myself. I live with strangers who work long hours and are usually out of the apartment, so my space is my space and my time my time. It may sound strange, but I'm really comfortable with it. Spending nights holed in my room reading and writing, once uncommon for me, is now routine.
I still had never traveled alone. I tried several times that summer in Italy but somehow there was always something that got in the way (a last minute travel partner or cancelled trains)...I even ended up looking into nunneries but they were quite pricey and I couldn't communicate with the nuns on the phone.
Then, two weekends ago, a $89 round-trip Amtrak deal to Montreal floated into my inbox. My first inclination was to share it with friends in New York to see if they wanted to join me on an adventure. But then I realized that this was my chance! This could be my “eat pray love.” My itinerary. My trip.
Selfishness ignited. Alone I went. 2 nights and a full day in Montreal, 18 hours on the train (9 hours each way), a little over 40 hours in Montreal, for a grand total of 60 hours in isolation. I was so EXCITED.
Of course, it wasn't complete isolation. There were people around. I talked. People talked to me (sometimes in French). It wasn't a silent retreat. The majority of my exchanges revolved awkwardly around my standalone nature. This is a typical conversation when people saw me eating by myself:
“Are you waiting for someone?”
“Um, no. just me.”
“Are you visiting Montreal?"
“Yeah, for the weekend. Wanted to get away from New York.” (My way of signaling I wanted to end the conversation).
“Ohh, I see.”
At which point people would cautiously back away, assuming my boyfriend had just dumped me or I was a stressed out New Yorker on the brink of a meltdown, and that basically my life was in shambles. None of which was true, of course. Not entirely at least.
Most of the time, I kept to myself. The best part was the efficiency. By 4 pm Saturday, I had climbed Mont Royal, suffered near cardiac arrest waiting an hour in line for the city's best poutin, embarrassed myself by bargaining at a Quebec designer's fashion sale (note to self: it is not proper protocol to bargain outside of Asia), and consumed a half bottle of wine at a university cafe (judged by onlooking McGill University students studying for finals).
In drunken glory, I reached the peak of my trip when I trudged through two feet of snow to the top of Mont Royal, 200 meters above ground to the sight of a city blanketed in white. The awe and wonder lasted about 42 seconds. I didn't have anyone to ooh and ah with. So, as I slid back down the slippery slope of the mountain, I wondered — “What next?” If I'd been traveling with others, we would be running behind schedule (which would have surely been frustrating) but that wasn't the problem. This time, I didn't know what to do. I had no one to share the beautiful sight with. What's more is that it was nearing happy hour and I was far from happy. Somehow in a matter of minutes, I had fallen from my highest high at the top of Mont Royal to major depressive disorder.
I mustered the energy to enter a bar, order a beer, and make friends. Something told me the latter probably wouldn't happen when I pulled out my phone and discovered free wi-fi. “No, Lynne, no.” I connected anyway. 15 minutes later, I was entering my 8th completed cycle of the vicious Facebook-Instagram-Twitter-Gmail wheel, which is where the anti-social part of this saga begins. Few things I can say with certainty, but I say with the surest certainty that scrolling through your social media feeds while surrounded by real living human flesh is the quickest way to feel like the loneliest person in the world. I left the bar a complete mute.
I returned to my hostel cold and tired. Earlier in the day, a McGill University student had recommended a vintage nightclub. “Don't worry,” she said reassuringly, “You won't feel awkward going by yourself. I'm sure you'll make plenty of friends.” That I needed reassurance I could make friends was enough to convince me I didn't want to go. By 11 pm, I was packed and ready to catch my train for the next day.
The train ride back was markedly different from the train there. Two days earlier, the excitement of my solo adventure flooded my thoughts as I undocked at Montreal's Central Station. Anything was possible. I dared myself to make a new friend, meet a guy at a bar, or go crazy wild. None of that happened. Maybe that says I'm anti-social, a hermit incapable of connection. (Okay, calm down Lynne. You're just introverted and shy.) But after 60 hours of little meaningful social contact, my feeling of loneliness had escalated to the point where I truly believed I had no friends in the world.
So, what can be gleaned from this adventure in isolation? That I'm an extremely melodramatic individual, prone to depression and marred by rejection? That solo trips yield delusions? Yes and yes. But more important than that, once I gained my senses back, I learned that we are not meant for isolation — at least not for more than 24 hours. It's not healthy. Also, social media does not make you more social. Shocking, I know. However, it does supplement many social activities nicely which is why I would never completely eliminate it if you want to stay connected to a larger group. It's a tool to document memories and keep track of interactions. (Case in point: while writing this post, I turned to my Instagram photos and Foursquare check-ins as a way of remembering the chronology of events and places I went to on my trip. In just two weeks, I had forgotten a lot.)
My eagerness to be alone has taught me several things. One is that we are social beings, even the most introverted of us. We need external stimulation to prevent us from going insane. Another is that independence, while efficient and empowering, does not make the best memories. Yet I had to experience a taste of it, in the form of loneliness, to know how to appreciate others. For so long, I've selfishly believed my time alone was immensely more valuable than time spent with other people. I wanted efficiency in personal interaction and while listening to people talk, I wondered why they couldn't get to the point. “What are you trying to tell me? Do we really have to stand here and make small talk?” I now see that people who are willing to allow me to enter their lives, be it through small talk or deeper exchange, are doing me a favor.
Of course it's a matter of balance; it is never ideal to hear someone ramble on and on about nothing. And we all need our space and time. But when you can find that perfect volume where you can tune into other people's stations without overpowering the own thoughts in your head — that's a sweet spot.
To say that we each have our own story is only partially true. We do have our own story, but we are not always the main characters. Pilots need passengers to take off. Otherwise it's just a flight and not an adventure.