On the one-year anniversary of the COVID quarantine, here’s a chapter from True Companions about the wonders of digital connection—and the irreplaceable value of analog companionship.
Several months ago, our daughter, Caitlin, and I were standing in the toy section of our local bookstore, when she picked up a Magic 8-Ball from the shelf, shook it, and waited for her answer to float to the surface of the inky liquid. When the word “Yes” appeared in the window, she wiped her brow in a grand gesture of great relief. I asked her what she had asked the 8-Ball. Her answer took my breath away.
“Will I ever feel like I fit in this world?”
I think the Magic 8-Ball gave Caitlin the right answer. Now more than ever, she probably will feel like she fits in this world, because we live in an age of digital miracles. We can connect to billions of people with a few taps of a finger or swipes of a thumb. Just one generation ago, you could only be in one place at a time. In your whole life, you’d meet maybe a few thousand people. Now, the whole world congregates in the palm of your hand. So, Caitlin probably will cross digital paths with enough people who are enough like her to feel like she fits in this world. However, this will give rise to an even more troubling question. Why, if I feel like I fit with so many, do I still feel so alone?
Around 2012, something happened to teenagers in the United States. For two consecutive decades, their reported levels of happiness had been increasing, and suddenly the trend reversed direction. At the same time, rates of reported loneliness and depression spiked, with a 50% increase in teenagers hospitalized for suicidal thoughts between 2008 and 2015. This kind of sudden decline in teen mental health has happened before, but always in connection to a major cultural upheaval or a cataclysmic global event. So, what was the most significant cultural revolution of 2012?
For the first time, more Americans owned a smartphone than did not.
Around the same time, social media became the go-to method for congregating and communicating amongst adolescents. Digital connection quickly began replacing analog companionship. Given a choice between a driver’s license and a smartphone, many kids suddenly preferred a phone. After all, a car can only drive you to one place to see a handful of people, but a phone can transport you everywhere to see everyone. Caitlin’s generation will be the most digitally connected generation in human history. Yet they may end up utterly isolated in the analog world.
Of course, I don’t believe these technologies have created our loneliness. Rather, I think we have created these technologies out of our loneliness. In an attempt to fix our ordinary loneliness, we gathered a digital crowd, but the digital crowd is leaving us more isolated than ever. This is confusing to us, because when we maintain a bunch of Snapchat streaks we feel momentarily accepted—like we really fit in this world, as Caitlin would say. So it seems like our loneliness should be shrinking, but instead it remains what it is and what it will always be, while our sense of isolation slowly grows alongside it. Then, we return to the bottomless well of digital connection, hoping this time it will finally satisfy our thirst for companionship.
It will not.
The morning after Caitlin asked her question of the Magic 8-Ball, I made her chocolate chip pancakes. As I mixed them, it occurred to me that digital connection is like chocolate chips in the pancake recipe of life. It is tasty and tempting to consume by the bagful. It feels good momentarily, and it goes down relatively easily. In contrast, analog companionship is more like the eggs. It holds everything together. It has cracks in it, and it’s messy, and if you don’t cook it all the way through it can even make you sick. However, without it, the recipe of life just doesn’t work very well.
The digital crowd brings with it the thrill of discovering you fit in from a distance, whereas analog companionship brings with it the challenge of figuring out how to fit together, up close and personal. Analog companionship has flesh and blood in its code, not 1s and 0s. It has salt in its tears, not pixels. There’s a big difference between a digital thumbs-up and a warm hug. Nevertheless, because the digital crowd momentarily obliterates our sense of isolation, we are giving more and more of our relational energy to it, rather than to analog companionship. In other words, we keep reaching for the chocolate chips, but we need to be cracking a few eggs instead.
The day after I made pancakes for Caitlin was Father’s Day, and I began the day by kayaking alone down my favorite river in north central Illinois. For long stretches of river, there is no sign of civilization at all, and you can float for miles without encountering another human being. Furthermore, there is no cellphone reception, so you are as alone as you’ll ever be in a world where the digital crowd is always knocking at your virtual door, one push notification at a time. I enjoyed being alone for about ten minutes. By the first bend in the river, though, my isolation wasn’t sitting well.
Out of habit, I reached for my phone. No signal. I waved it in the air like we do now, hoping for bars. Nothing. I put the expensive brick back in its watertight compartment. My feelings of isolation, however, were not so easy to compartmentalize. I had an urge to check my social media accounts. I let the urge float by. I had an urge to text a friend I hadn’t talked to in a long time. I let it float by. My mind wandered ahead to the upcoming week, and I wanted to check my calendar. I let the desire float by. I left my digital crowd upstream. I paddled. I looked around.
I took it all in.
The wind in the treetops. The sun on fire. When my loneliness surfaced, instead of reaching for my phone, I reached over the boat. I grazed the surface of the analog river with my analog hand. I attended to all of these tangible realities: wind and sun and water. These elements. It made me think of how, in my faith tradition, we receive two elements every Sunday: bread and wine. They are meant to symbolize the flesh and blood of Jesus. It’s a weekly reminder that uploading prayers to supernatural gods can only take us so far, that flesh-and-blood presence is the kind of analog companionship we all really need.
Flesh and blood.
On that Father’s Day morning, my restless urge to reach out to the digital crowd never really left me. But in the midst of it I became aware of myself floating toward the flesh-and-blood, analog companionship in my own life. It would be waiting for me on the dock at the end of my journey. Kelly and our three kids. Waving. Chattering. Fighting. Smelling of sunscreen and sweat, of flesh and blood, of bath water and river water, of baptism by life. I had not immersed myself in the rushing waters of the digital crowd, so I had time to value the flow of this analog companionship in my life, this sometimes joyous, sometimes painful, always challenging, elemental philia.
Analog companionship can be hard. It can’t rescue you from all your isolation, because it can’t be there for every bend in the river. Nor can it eliminate your ordinary loneliness, because it can’t see all the way inside of you. However, if you are not cultivating analog companionship on a daily basis—the day-to-day exchange of care and chaos, connection and confession—then like so many young people today your sense of isolation will grow more quickly than your Instagram following ever could. On the other hand, if you commit to the practice of companionship—if you turn from everything to one face, as the novelist Elizabeth Bowen says—then when you arrive at the dock at the end of your journey, you might just discover yourself face to face with everything you could ask for. You might just discover this Magic 8-Ball we call life has given you the answer you’d been hoping for all along.
And we analog companions,
wipe our holy human brows
in a grand gesture
of great relief.
Find out more about True Companions by clicking here.
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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.