Loneliness in an Age of Distraction
In his book The Shallows, Nicolas Carr explains:
“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention, and we willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”
Carr argues that we are a society addicted to distraction. We have trained our minds to be restless, constantly moving to the next thing without registering the first. Even while reading this article, you will probably be tempted to look at Instagram, check an email, or answer a text.
Is it possible that this subconscious tick has significantly changed our understanding of community and how we relate to one another? If we truly are addicted to distraction, does this shed light on why we are possibly the loneliest generation?
Addicted to Distraction?
Distraction is the antithesis of presence which, is essential for community and relationship. In the realest sense, presence demands attention and concentrated listening. Have you ever tried to have an important conversation with someone who was distracted? Not only is it frustrating, but you feel devalued because it seems as if you were not worth their attention. What happens when we are all excellent at distracted listening but convince ourselves and others we are present? We are left in a world where we are always communicating but never being heard, subconsciously growing jaded about the real conversations that are required for lasting community.
Add to this the odd paradox that as the world becomes increasingly smaller, we become increasingly lonelier. Technology has made communication with anyone around the globe possible in an instant, yet loneliness is on the rise.
In late 2019, a Barna-World Vision partnership surveyed 15,000 18-35 year-olds from 25 countries, and the results were fascinating to say the least:
77 percent of respondents said events around the world matter to them.
57 percent said they feel connected to people around the world.
And yet, 66 percent said they don’t feel cared for by those around them.
Research from other countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, and Japan illustrates the same point. Additionally, the BBC conducted an online survey of 55,000 people from around the world, and they found levels of loneliness were highest among 16-24 year-olds.
Is social media to blame for this epidemic? Some experts say yes, but according to a 2018 survey by Cigna of over 20,000 people, social media can’t be the real problem. Respondents labeled as heavy social media users only had a loneliness score of 43.5 compared to those who never use social media with a score of 41.7.
A better question for us to ask is, “Why are we addicted to something as odd as distraction in the first place?” An addiction to coffee makes sense to me: It wakes me up and has an amazing aroma. And as for sugar, it tastes good. But what is so alluring about distraction?
One of the greatest sources of anxiety when I was a child was the annual doctor’s check-up. I was a healthy kid, but even the healthiest of us have to get the annual, much-dreaded shot. It didn’t matter how nice the doctor appeared to be; we knew that eventually the syringe would find its way into our arm.
Tellingly, the best physicians were those who mastered the art of distraction. Some would sing a song, give us a toy, or point to a painting on the wall, and then ever so stealthily administer the needle. When done well, we never noticed the pain.
Was it because there was no pain? No—the needle still broke the skin. However, because our minds were so heavily distracted, the pain went unrecognized. While this may seem cute and ridiculous, have we moved passed such childish things?
I wonder if the reason we are so addicted to distraction is because it helps us to avoid the pain that’s just below the surface. The pain of not knowing if our lives even matter; the pain of wondering if we will ever measure up; the pain of wondering whether we will ever truly be loved.
For those of us who do use social media, consider the cycle that ensnares so many of us today:
While you feel deeply connected to the world around you, you feel profoundly isolated from the people closest to you. So, you seek human connection on social media only to be fooled into thinking you are actually connecting with people. Then reality sets in. While the world is offering you its most photoshopped version of itself, and everyone seems to be living their best life, you realize how alone you really are. You are nothing like the images you see on the screen. So you stop for a moment, only to then go back to where you “connect” because the intoxication of distraction numbs the ache of loneliness. This cycle goes on and on until we don’t even remember why we were distracting ourselves in the first place. It just becomes the rhythm of life.
All we are left with is ourselves, the very self that isn’t enough. We need a real connection from outside.
The Christian Perspective on Distraction
From a Christian standpoint, loneliness should make us feel off. God created humans in his image for community because He Himself (the Triune Being) is community; therefore, loneliness would be outside of his design.
But rather than respecting this design of real communion with God, we wanted to call the shots and chose a false sense of autonomy instead. As sin entered the cosmos, it not only fractured our relationship with God but with other people. Even in the Garden of Eden, the first thing humans did when they sinned was hide themselves because of guilt and shame. We have been hiding ourselves from God ever since, not realizing that in doing so we inadvertently hide ourselves from others for the same reasons.
One of the most raw passages of scripture comes from Psalm 88 where the psalmist takes his anger and loneliness directly to God. He doesn’t pull any punches: “You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend” (verse 18).
The question that often plagues us all in our loneliness is, “Does anyone really care about me?” It makes sense that the heart of Christianity is God’s relentless pursuit of those who are outcasted, alienated, and lost—those far from Christ.
Psalm 88 reveals that the God of Christianity acknowledges our loneliness and yet doesn’t patronizingly tell us to “get over it.” Instead, He descends, listens, and shows us that He, too, knows what it’s like to battle loneliness.
Hours before his crucifixion, all of Jesus’ disciples—his best friends—deserted him. Not only was he alone in a physical sense, but in Mark 15:33-34, we read, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. At the ninth hour, Jesus cried in a loud voice, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’” While hanging alone on the cross, Christ took on true alienation. He understands loneliness and isolation to a degree that none of us ever will.
As Psalm 88 makes clear, Christianity doesn’t say we won’t ever feel lonely. Rather, it shows us that we are never truly alone despite our feelings to the contrary. A God who has experienced cosmic loneliness is a God you can trust with yours. The assured hope is that even loneliness will have its end and, while we struggle to believe this truth in the midst of our lives, we are given truths to cling to like Psalm 139:
“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,’
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.”
Itinerant Speaker, RZIM