Isolation in the Age of Social Media

Being alone or in isolation is commonly perceived as a sad state of being. Being alone is never really considered a destination, but rather a state of unfortunate and hopefully temporary circumstances. Its ripe with connotations of unfulfillment, loneliness and undesirability. Women especially face a particular cultural stigma associated with being alone: the “spinster” stigma, or the idea that they are somehow unwanted, unattractive, surrounded by cats destined to be alone forever. As social beings, there is certainly something to be gained by the company of others, not to mention its fundamentally necessary for our survival as a species. Its understandable that these perceptions and stigmas have stuck with our society for so long.

However, what if isolation were a good thing?

 

Peggy Whitson, NASA Astronaut and biochemical researcher, on the International Space Station.

Peggy Whitson, NASA Astronaut and biochemical researcher, on the International Space Station.

Last week we were reminded of the ultimate isolation that space explorers face when NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson returned to Earth after nine months, or 288 consecutive days, on the International Space Station. The comforts of home, friends & family, and everything familiar may have only been 200 miles away--about a quarter the distance across Texas--but those 200 miles are much much further in ____ and far more treacherous. Think about it: limited amounts of food and water, only a thin piece of metal between you and certain death, everything around you is trying to kill you, in case of emergency you have very limited means of communication and your evacuation plan might just require you to float into an abyss of nothingness. Now imagine if this was your typical “day at the office” for nine months straight. Like the first explorers of the New World, nothing is safe and nothing is familiar.

 

How did she do it? She focused on what mattered.

“Because I always had my work and challenges to tackle, I never really felt isolated…I was there to utilize my skills to get a job done. I kept asking for more.”

There’s something kind of funny about solitude. Solitude heightens our internal thought processes and receptivity. It allows a space for personal reflection without the noise of the every day.  Isolation allows for growth in a way that can be challenging and extremely painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life, your experiences, your emotions, what you think and what you feel...these are constantly being thrown back on you and only you. Then when the “too much humanity” feeling intensifies: you can't run away from it. The process simply repeats.

You can't run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you're working on. Solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, face your work, face your thoughts, and to sit with them for long periods of time, as uncomfortable and unnerving as they may be.

It takes the courage to be there. You run into your own pettiness. Your own cowardice. You run into all kinds of ugly sides of yourself. But the things that you've experienced in your life become the writing, the sketches, the doodles, the task lists, the designs, the experiments, the scores, the very core of your genius. And there's no easy way to get to it, if you want to find the greatest of what is within you, what you can create, what you can achieve--- it only resides in one place: within you.

 

Being Everywhere and Nowhere.

The age of social media has helped us stay connected and allows us to communicate faster than ever before. Being in front of hand held computer devices, walking around with these glowy bricks that give us access to the entire world in an instant. This has become a part of our modern culture. We have instant access to a whole host of thoughts outside our own. Its attractive, its inspiring, it makes us feel connected in some way, and most of all, its addictive. Not only addictive but an addictive cycle that's really difficult to break, difficult to not become incessantly attached to; its both the evil and genius of social media.

I mean, lets be real here. How many times have you checked your social media today?

 

Overcoming the Addiction (and the Stigma)

So how do we break the cycle of being addicted to thoughts outside our own, and let go of the stigma of isolation? How do you find solitude?

Just breathe. Take some time to be with you.

Just breathe. Take some time to be with you.

The first step is to travel back in time.

Simple, right? Haha well easier than you think:

Leave that glowy brick alone for just a day. Log out of your social media accounts and pretend its 1999.

Go on a hike or for a swim or do some other activity that's just for you. Spend a little bit of time with yourself with no real goal or care of productivity in mind. No TV, no internet, no books, no podcasts, no barrage of other people’s thoughts or opinions or voices. Let your mind wander and be free. At the end of the day, take note of where your mind wandered, but don’t take it too seriously just yet.

Then try this again next week. And maybe twice the week following. Eventually work it into your routine where maybe a few hours per day you spend some time in isolation. Little by little the voice inside will grow louder than the noise on the outside. Get comfortable with it and settle in, because the good stuff is about to come.

For certain there will be moments of awkwardness and scariness. Like the first explorers it might be tempting to retreat and go back to safety, back to the comfort of everyone else’s thoughts/opinions curating your life so you don't have to make those decisions. Resist the urge and keep focusing on you. Eventually you’ll grow to love and become addicted to your own voice, your own passions, your own path, the greatest version of you.

“I love being up here. Living and working aboard the space station is where I feel like I make the greatest contribution, so I am constantly trying to squeeze every drop out of my time here. Having three more months to squeeze is just what I would wish for.”

Take the next three months and live just for you.

 

Watch NASA’s footage of Peggy’s return to Earth here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSXffXSSHRM