Recently, my Facebook friends have been passing around an article by a man who gave up the Internet for a year. It’s a very honest, somewhat vulnerable article about man who wanted to resolve big questions about his identity, but found the answers unsatisfactory. He discovers that the novelty of anything wears off, and that once past the initial elation of having made a major change, his withdrawn personality again dominates his interaction with the world. It seems obvious, with 20-20 hindsight, that it was not the Internet making him feel socially isolated – his choices were. After 6 months of being a better self, he retreats once again, finding equally mindless analog activities to dull his boredom.
I never believed that technology has some awesome power to turn us into mindless Facebook zombies. A “like” or a text message can feel like a rush, and each day without contact like a personal rejection. Facebook amplifies our audience for petty grievances as well as petty victories. But in the end, we are still people interacting with other people. Whether it’s comment trolls, or your friend who cannot put the phone down during lunch, their behavior is unlikely to improve in the absence of technology – at least not radically, and not permanently. The digital world is populated by people, good and bad, and being a good human affects both of those spheres.
Recently, I was taking a BART train home and witnessed an episode that left me hopeful about humanity. A young woman sitting across the aisle from me was slowly coming unraveled. At first just tremors in her hands, nervously adjusting and readjusting her hair; some ragged sighs, then quiet tears through heavy mascara. I was consumed with my own sad thoughts in that hour, and felt too emotionally poor to reach out. Instead I watched her working hard to keep her distress contained, as it slowly broke her down. Just as she was on the verge of sobbing, a woman from the middle of the train got up and sat next to her, asked the sobbing woman’s name, and if she could help. I did not hear the conversation details, and didn’t need to –the phrase that reached me, repeated several times, was “thank you so much, this is just what I needed”. The Good Samaritan did little beyond paying attention, listening, then nearly missing her stop to continue being supportive.
It’s as if that reaching out broke the floodgates of other passengers’ concern. They had been pretending, as I had, that it was, at best, not their business, and at worst, not their problem. But as soon as that first helper got off the train, several passengers offered cell phones, advice, even a hug. Maybe they felt guilt for not helping earlier, and seeing someone else’s kindness was like holding up a mirror. Maybe it just made it somehow ok to “meddle”.
I want to remember that evening – that it’s ok to help, and to connect, online and off.