The digital clock told me it was way past eleven in the evening. The city lights of Chicago shone dimly through the curtain, deceptively making the outdoors brighter than it should be. My sister sat sobbing on the bed of our hotel room, in the throes of an existential crisis. “I’ve been around people all day,” she choked out. “Why do I feel so alone?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. It was a perplexing question, to be sure. We had spent our day at the Midwest Ace Comic Con, mostly in lines and milling around the displays, though we had also gotten our picture taken with one of our favorite actors Tom Hiddleston. There had been a plethora of people at the convention, and if the lines were any indication, most of them there for the same reason–the same celebrity–as we were. Then we had spent our evening navigating the public transit system as we met up with a mutual friend for dinner. We had taken multiple trains and buses at rush hour, surrounded by an amalgamation of Chicago natives and tourists. If anything, as introverts, my sister and I should have been burned out by our exposure to humanity that day.
“I’m just broken,” she sniffled.
“You’re not broken,” I replied. It might seem like an automatic response to soothe a troubled soul, but I was in earnest. Something had been off for me as well, but I couldn’t quite place what.
“I just don’t remember feeling like this after we got David Tennant’s autograph,” my sister further explained. “I was high for days.”
I laid down and tried to puzzle out this conundrum. What had been different about our two celebrity encounters? Were we simply older and no longer as excitable as we once were? Or was there something else amiss?
I cast my mind back to August 2011. My sister, mother, and I had gone to London to see David Tennant and his Doctor Who costar Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing on the West End. Whilst there, we were informed that if we went backstage a little before the end of the play, we could line up for free autographs and possible selfies from the actors. So on one of our last nights in England, my sister and I braved the trademark cold, wet London weather to get our playbooks signed.
As we waited backstage, we chatted with the other fans. There was a thrum of enthusiasm and anticipation as everyone exchanged stories about the actors. We were united in our love of David Tennant, Shakespeare, and Doctor Who. When the actors came out, we all greeted one another and passed along compliments. I told Catherine Tate I loved her in the show, and I had a unique conversation with David because his t-shirt said “Let’s Visit Detroit: the Motor City” and my family lives in Michigan.
I compared that event to my recent experience at the Comic Con. While waiting in line for my autograph from Tom Hiddleston, I was surrounded by the most deafening silence. One teenager to the left of me was reading smutty fanfiction on her phone, and it took all my self-control not to turn into teacher mode and tell her to put that crap away. A college-aged woman was playing a game on her phone. A third woman was taking pictures and posting them to Instagram. Every once in a while, a thread of conversation would start up, only to unravel after a few minutes.
A gregarious man cosplaying as Loki regaled the queue with tales of previous comic cons, but then he moved up in line and that was the end of that. A woman behind me worried about missing her other photo op while the autograph line was delayed, and I spent a few moments reassuring her that the Con people would accommodate her (which they did shortly thereafter, eliminating my only conversational partner). Two girls next to me complained about the wait and when I tried to commiserate with them, shot me looks as if I had told them Loki had suddenly sprouted two heads (which wouldn’t be outside the realms of possibility, given his shape-shifting ability).
Even the autograph booth was silent when I finally entered it. The four people in front of me didn’t say a thing to Tom as he signed their pictures. They merely ogled him, completely agog. If I had been Tom, I would’ve been annoyed at being gaped at like an exotic animal at the zoo, but I have to give Tom credit. He radiated warmth and kindness, and seemed perfectly serene compared to the rest of the people in the booth.
This feeling of isolation stayed with me as we traveled on the public transit system. Dozens of people sitting next to each other on buses and trains, never saying a word. Most of them, as soon as they entered the vehicle, pulled out earbuds and ducked their heads, avoiding eye contact. The message was clear: “don’t bother me.” The older crowd on the bus may not have had earbuds, but they likewise avoided any conversation with each other by shutting their eyes or looking at their shoes.
When my sister and I were on the Amtrak coming back from Chicago, she asked me, “Has everyone gone to sleep? It’s so quiet.”
“No,” I told her. “They’re just all on their iPads and Smartphones.”
How is it in just the 7 years since my sister and I spent an evening celebrating David Tennant with a bunch of other fans, we have degenerated so much as a society that we won’t even talk to each other? I was at a Comic Con specifically designed to bring fans together to celebrate certain actors, yet no one wanted to share their stories with the person next to them. They were too busy sharing it on Twitter. No one wanted to make a new friend with the stranger in the line. They were too preoccupied managing the hundreds of strangers on Facebook they consider “friends.” No one wanted to be in the moment. They were too busy filming it on their smartphones.
My dear readers, we have a problem. We have become a society so obsessed with the digital world that we have forgotten how to live in the real world. I was at a conference for teachers just a week after the Comic Con, and one teacher pointed out that she had to teach her third graders how to have a conversation because they didn’t know how. Let that sink in for a moment. A bunch of eight-year-olds had to be taught that first one person speaks while the other listens, and then the second person speaks while the first one listens. Their families are either not spending any time together, or they’re so glued to their smartphones at the dinner table that they aren’t even teaching their children how to properly talk.
Is every third grade class that messed up? No, thank God. But it’s only going to get worse if we don’t start to unplug from our addictive social media platforms. Recent studies have found that the more time you spend on social media, the more likely you are to be depressed.* For one thing, people start comparing their life to the glamorous world that someone has created online, and they get jealous, even though that life they’re envying is probably completely fabricated. Another reason, psychologists posit, is that humans are replacing physical connections with digital ones, and the two are not interchangeable.
We can’t live like that. We can’t live trying to earn fake friends/followers online, spending all of our free time on our phone, and video-taping every significant moment instead of actively participating in it. We need to engage with REAL people. The only way we will learn to deal with someone who has a different opinion from ourselves is if we talk. To. them. And I don’t mean texting or messaging them. I mean staring them in the eye, opening your mouth, and speaking.
Human beings need visceral, tangible connections that our smartphones cannot supply. As we lose our power of conversation, we lose something that sets us apart from the rest of the mammals. No other animal can have discussions on Shakespeare, or Van Gogh, or on sports, or on something as mundane as the weather. Words make us human. Relationships make us human.
John Donne** said “No man is an island, entire of itself,” yet I felt like my own island standing in that line for autographs at the Comic Con. The great island of Cassandra, population 1. I was alone in a room full of people, the worst form of isolation on the planet. I was saved from my isolation by a kind man signing autographs who took the time to actually engage me in a conversation. It may have been a 45 second interaction, but it was a real connection, not a digital one. What a beautiful thing.
Perhaps if we reach out to just one person a day, we can knit these islands of isolation back into one giant continent of mankind. I’m willing to give it a try. What about you?