In Chicago, at the peak of the eclipse, you could still see about 13% of the sun. That is, I think, about how much remains of our communal life, as well. This is what I mean by that, this is the damage it is doing to us, and this is what we can do about it…
As the eclipse began to wane, I looked to my side and saw one other person on the hillside next to me. She too was lowering her gaze and removing her eclipse glasses. Our eyes met. We smiled at the same time. No words. Just a smile. I can’t be sure what her smile meant, but I know what my smile was saying:
In this space and time, we were enjoying the same experience.
We were two people paying attention to this one thing.
We shared this.
As I walked off the hillside, I wondered why her small smile had moved me more than the vast crescent smile of the sun shining around the moon. I think it was a feeling of connectedness—a sense of unity that transcends familiarity; a sense of belonging that can happen even amongst strangers who are sharing experiences in community.
But our communal life is going extinct.
And it is making us lonelier than ever.
When I was growing up, everyone watched the same televisions shows at exactly the same time and then gathered around the same school lockers or office water coolers to analyze, or laugh about, what they had watched. Now, for the most part, we binge on a Netflix series at our own pace.
We don’t see the same things anymore.
When I was growing up, you sat for a meal with your friends and everyone had the same conversation—the topic might shift, but you shifted with it together. Now, half a dozen friends can sit at a table and simultaneously carry on two dozen different conversation, as they juggle text messages and Facebook Messenger and Snapchat streaks and the comments section of a YouTube video.
We don’t talk about the same things anymore.
When I was growing up, my dad would play music on the home stereo. Mostly he’d play good stuff, like U2’s Joshua Tree or Paul Simon’s Graceland. Sometimes, not so much. But either way, we’d all listen. Now, my kids can each find a device and a set of headphones and listen to their own music.
We aren’t dancing to the same tune anymore.
When I was growing up, the news was the news, so you watched the same news as everyone else. Now, an algorithm tailors your news to your ego—whatever riles you up and makes you more certain of your beliefs gets pushed into your feed. Everything else is deemed fake news. Your reality is someone else’s hoax, and vice versa.
We don’t even consume the same information anymore.
I suppose it’s possible I’m just waxing nostalgic, just idealizing the good ole days, just grousing like an old codger. But it’s also possible the old codgers have always had something important to say. The difference is, we used to have to listen to them; now we can just slip on our noise-cancelling headphones.
Even wisdom has been individualized.
There are a few exceptions, though. An eclipse, for example. For a few hours, everyone was staring upward at the same sun. In awe of the same universe. Smiling about the same wonder.
Blizzards accomplish the same thing. They stop us from racing in our separate directions and everyone has to hoist the same kind of shovel for a while.
Why do concerts remain so popular? Because there is something joyful about a crowd full of people staring in the same direction, at the same art. And when the lead singer quits singing and holds the mic out and the crowd all sings in unison, well, communal events don’t get much more transcendent than that.
Tragedies do it, too. Hurricanes, for instance—everyone watching and fleeing the same flooded streets. Everyone reminded of our common frailty. And when tragedies pass, mourning is still one of the most reliable communal events. Pain endured in community becomes a peculiar gift, a hidden grace, bringing us together as one, which is where we all really want to be anyway.
But our communal life is being eclipsed by our technology.
And the dark pall it casts is called loneliness.
Unfortunately, this kind of eclipse won’t pass on its own. The light of our togetherness is something we have to reclaim and protect. We’re going to have to put down our phones and pick up the thread of the same conversation. We’re going to have to take out our ear buds so that something more eternal can bud within us and between us. We’re going to have to quit wondering what we’re missing out on, so we can all wonder together at the same shared life, right there in front of us.
We’re going to have to push the moon out of the way and wrap our arms around the light of community and belonging for which we are all so deeply longing.
Or, maybe, it was just a smile on a hillside.
Maybe, somehow, while I was listening to Graceland, I became an old codger.
Only time can tell.
Will the darkness gather, or will we gather?
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.