A Few Daring Plunges
The vibrancy and noise of online social connections—today’s virtual bacchanal for eager minds and silent eyes—reflects a deep human need for, and appreciation of, connection and belonging. But we know, or should know, that such thin connections are no substitute for the unpredictable richness of even the most fleeting of real human encounters. And without realizing the difference between the two, device-based habits may easily turn into an accepted but impoverished normality. David Brooks writes that with today’s social media “You can have a day of happy touch points without any of the scary revelations, or the boring, awkward or uncontrollable moments that constitute actual intimacy. … Being online isn’t just something we do. It has become who we are, transforming the very nature of the self.”
Are authentic connections becoming passé? Dr. Jean Twenge in her book iGen makes a strong case that authentic connections are no longer the norm for adolescents today. “Born after 1995, iGen is the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone. With social media and texting replacing other activities, iGen spends less time with their friends in person—perhaps why they are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.” The full title of her book is iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us. Anyone who works with young people today should read it, not only because of the solid research, but also because it will make you think about what is best for those entrusted to your care. “This ought to be one of the main concerns of those who instruct others: to be able to understand their students and to discern the right way to guide them.” (DLS, Med 33.1) This book looks at why, for example, with so many virtual contacts, young people are more lonely than in the past.
A recent CIGNA study showed that over half of Americans view themselves as lonely, and the survey “found that actually the younger generation was lonelier than the older generations.” The least lonely were those of The Greatest Generation – 72 years old and above. Why is this not such a big surprise to some of us who are older? Perhaps we discovered by long experience that achieving a skill or a goal requires actual time, effort, conversation, and engagement – most of which may be facilitated by devices, but none of which may be substituted for them. Even going to a deli requires time, effort, conversation, and engagement. Silently ordering online – scan menu, make choices, fill in address, pay with card – makes opening the door for the delivery person – brief eye-contact, minimal talk – the most profound human encounter of the whole interaction. And drone-delivery will eventually make even that unnecessary. Is it any wonder that chronic loneliness, serious hole-in-the-soul loneliness, is on the rise?
How then might we as educators make a positive difference and guide young people into a different kind of Promised Land? Lots of ways; but here is a simple one. Find a place on the school property where there is student traffic, and stand or sit or wander there every day, making eye contact with as many students as possible. Say hello, smile, whatever; but engage! You will quickly find that it becomes deeply rewarding, and also perhaps challenging (to keep doing). Human nature itself guarantees that even minimal effort in addressing the deepest of longings of people bears a vastly disproportionate, cumulatively positive reward for everyone. Eye contact is the invitation, and then “a smile is a flower is a smile of the heart.” (Pope Francis) How hard can it be? And if it is hard, then more time, effort, conversation, and engagement are needed. The more we enter into something new, the greater our capacity becomes for doing it.
Heroic endeavors are called for today, because social media generally “flattens the range of emotional experiences. . . [E]very moment is fun and diverting, but the whole thing is profoundly unsatisfying. I guess a modern version of heroism is … regaining control of social impulses, saying no to a thousand shallow contacts for the sake of a few daring plunges.”
Teachers are at the forefront of what Br. Leon Lauraire calls our uniquely Lasallian “pedagogy of fraternity.” Daring plunges, even brief ones, are the happy requirement for its realization.