my favorite book in 2016 / we are losing our empathy / not a food post.

2016 was quite the year for me/us. I’m surprised I had time to read much of anything other than blog posts on How To Not Freak Out Every Day Waiting To Hear Back From Graduate School Admissions Committees, or, How To Travel Safely In The Car With Your Cats (the internet is a murky, murky place my friends).

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the books I (completely) read in 2016

But, as pictured above, that’s the stack of books I managed to start and actually finish last year. (Rest assured there is another stack of books I picked up and haven’t gotten around to finishing yet)

I wanted to take a break from the regular programming here and talk about my favorite book in the stack, or, rather, the book that had the biggest impact on me (so it’s kind of both). That is the book on the bottom: Reclaiming Conversation by Sherri Turkle. I’ve mentioned it to friends and family, so if you’re real life related to me, you might have heard me mention it or seen me luging it around, as its a hefty 362 pages.

Essentially, Sherri addresses something that I know affects all of our modern American lives: how technology, social media, and very specifically, our phones have eroded away our ability to communicate, empathize and relate to one another. She pulls lots of recent qualitative research on the subject to help prove her point (essential if you want to persuade this skeptic) and it really, really affected me. She mentions how couples go to bed staring at tiny bright rectangles, watching other people’s “lives” instead of talking to each other, engaging one another, or, heaven forbid, having sex. She interviews the parent’s of small children who have pleaded with their moms and dads to ‘stop Googling and watch me!’ She discusses how some teenagers and parents avoid having tough conversations in person by texting through the conflict in the same house, but separate rooms (this is so the person can ‘control’ what they are going to say – control of speech doesn’t happen when you talk in person). She mentions that we are terrified of feeling alone or bored, so we constantly “check in” on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, in order to feel stimulated and connected to the world.

Here’s a quote:

“If we text rather than talk, we can have each other in amounts we can control. And texting and email and posting let us present the self we want to be.  We can edit and retouch…But human relationships are rich, messy, and demanding. When we clean them up with technology, we move from conversation to the efficiency of mere connection.”

I could go on and on, because its great writing and profound discussion, and it addresses so much that is relevant to today. But what I wanted to emphasize, and soapbox about a little, is another main point that Sherri makes: we are losing our empathy.

Here is a favorite quote:

“Torn between our desire to express an authentic self and the pressure to show our best selves online, it is not surprising that frequent use of social media leads to feelings of depression and social anxiety. And trouble with empathy. Research shows that those who use social media the most have difficulty reading human emotions, including their own. But the same research gives us cause for optimism: We are resilient. Face-to-face conversation leads to greater self-esteem and an improved ability to deal with others. Again, conversations cures” (emphasis mine)

She gives an example of children saying mean things to one another. Typically, when a young child is hurt by another’s words, that child will cry or react in such a way that the offender feels remorse or pain because of their words. Not so when this happens over social media. You can say the mean things without fear of reprisal, or having to witness the pain you just caused. In a sense, it won’t make you uncomfortable to say those things.

And that’s very dangerous.

I think an incredibly obvious sign of how we have lost almost all traces of empathy is the recent election cycle, and the way social media has played its part. I’ve seen grandma’s who I know wouldn’t hurt a fly, spill vitriol of the highest order on Facebook and Twitter because someone bad-mouthed their candidate, or disagreed with them, or posted something they found fault with. I’ve seen many friends, who I know to be incredibly kind individuals, cut down anyone who dares challenge their opinion or disagree with their party’s platform. All from behind the shelter of their smart phones and laptops.

So now I have some questions:

  • If you were having this conversation in real life, would you actually speak the same way to that friend or stranger in cyber space, condemning them for their choices and their beliefs?
  • If you overheard a conversation on the street from two perfect strangers discussing something you don’t agree with, would you actually jump in and call them stupid, dumb, backwards, out-of-touch, (or my personal favorite, a “libtard”)?
  • Do you feel so comfortable ensconced behind your device that you don’t care what your words mean or how they might affect others?
  • Also, do people really need to know what you think? Do you really need to share with them your thoughts on policy, abortion, climate change, trade and everything else?
  • Re-read that last question.
  • One more time.
  • “But what if they’re wrong?” you say. Then let them be wrong. I think if you tried to convince everyone that was wrong on the Internet to your way of thinking, you might explode. Or lose your job. Or never see your family again. Or starve.
  • “But I neeeeeeeeeeeed to tell them how I feel!” Why? Why do you need to do that? Will it alter the course of their life in some Damascus road sort of way?  Or will it just serve to make YOU feel better?
  • Are you sharing your opinion and/or cutting down others online because of your own righteous indignation? If you are, maybe consider how the world (and definitely Facebook/Twitter) needs one less person who is mean. Be that one less person.

The world is dark enough, sad enough, crazy enough and definitely mean enough without all of us “yelling” at each other through our keyboards, sharing passive aggressive messages to convince the “other side” of their folly while we pound our lives from away behind the computer. When you look back at this divisive year, do you want to be able to say “wow, I sure did post to Facebook a lot!” or do you want to have had actual conversations with others? Do you want to have actually contributed in a tangible way to healing wounds and bridging gaps? Wouldn’t you want to have actually lived?

Spend time with others over coffee or beer, learning from one another, seeing another person’s point of view, and hearing their story so you know how their choices have been shaped. You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to approve. You also don’t have to convince anybody. Being kind is enough. Being humble is enough. Being present, acting like you care about what they have to say, will go a lot further than eviscerating them on social media.

And, a final quote from the wise Sherry:

“When politics goes online, people begin to talk about political action in terms of things they can do online. They are drawn to the idea that social change can happen by giving a “thumbs-up” or by subscribing to a group. The slow, hard work of politics -study, analysis, listening, trying to convince someone with a different point of view-these get lost. The Internet is a good start, a place to bring people together. But politics continues in conversation and in relationships developed over time. I have said that technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Now I worry that it can also give us the illusion of progress without the demands of action.”

A small disclaimer: I’m definitely not saying posting on social media is bad or wrong. I do it often. You probably wouldn’t be reading this if I hadn’t. I think its fun to share interesting and factual articles for others to enjoy also. What I am saying is: don’t be mean. And if you wouldn’t say it to their face, then don’t say it to their profile.

And no worries, I’ll be back to posting about food in no time.

Other notes: I’m not excluding myself from any of the above, that would make me a hypocrite. Other things I learned from Sherry: To put my phone on the other side of the room at night and not bring it to bed. To leave my phone at home on date night. To put it away/off when out with friends and at dinner. Or to not even bring it. I’m definitely not perfect at all of these things, but I’m definitely trying. Admitting you need help is the first step to recovery!

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