I was on Twitter yesterday and glanced at the trending topics. I don’t always pay attention to these, but ”R.I.P.” was trending and I became curious about who had died. I quickly learned that two people were being mentioned, Don Cornelius, creator of Soul Train, and a young Texas teenager named Ashley Duncan.
Both had died by their own hand, but of the two, I found the story of the teen the most troubling because a blog and Twitter were used to announce her intent. I recall a few years ago, a young man called Abraham K. Biggs took his lifewhile broadcasting video on the Justin.tv website, while people watched. In Ashley Duncan’s case, one of her final Twitter tweets was ”I finally got a gun.” While browsing her blog and twitter feed, she clearly was giving warning signs someone could have picked up on. According to Dr. Stuart Fischhoff, in Psychology Today, there are two important types of suicide, impulsive and planned. The planned variety, the kind we see live on Justin.tv or hear about in advance on Twitter and blogs, are difficult to prevent. They can be disrupted and postponed, but when the person is intent on following through, it is only a matter of time unless a life-altering change happens.
Overcoming the darkness
Brené Brown says that when we shield ourselves from vulnerability, when we block out painful feelings, we also block out joy. We cannot selectively distance ourselves from our emotions. I know this from first hand experience. I went through a dark period of life a while ago in which I would go to work day after day and feel absolutely nothing. I believe I was experiencing what Brown is talking about. I didn’t want to feel hurt or sad anymore, and by blocking those feelings I was also not feeling any joy or happiness either. I told a friend at work about it, who happened to be married to a professional counselor, and she told me, “you know they make wonderful drugs for that.” I didn’t want drugs, I just wanted to feel something again.
In truth, I felt many things. A sense of dread at the beginning of a new day. Not wanting to get out of bed, but forcing myself to because others were counting on me. I felt despair and hopelessness. But I didn’t embrace them, I denied them, trying my best to block them out, and I never felt any joy as a result.
I’m quite a lot better now. A number of things have happened along the way, not the least of which was hearing Brené Brown speak at the TEDxKC event.
I think that realizing that you can’t avoid pain without also avoiding pleasure has helped me to understand how life works a little better.
The personal touch
One thing that I tried on my journey back to normal-functioning humanhood is making a purposeful effort at reconnecting with family and friends. I’m talking about honest-to-goodness, close enough you can reach-out-and-actually-touch-them connections. Midway through my forties, I’m extremely lucky to have two living grandparents, and I really value these relationships.
My grandfather and I went on a veteran’s Honor Flight to Washington D.C. and I can honestly say it was a high point in my adult life. To see all of those heroes together, and my grandfather among them. It was overwhelming. Learning more about his story and the trials he endured helped me to focus less on my own now-trivial trials.
My grandmother lives in a nursing home now, and I make a point to try to see her regularly, although I’m sure it is never often enough to suit her. I remember my father making regular visits to his grandmother, and this is a tradition I try to pass on to my kids. It is good for the grandparents, it is good for the grandkids. Everyone involved benefits.
Sherry Turkle has written a book called “Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other.” When I read stories like the Texas teen who gave up on life, and compare it to what Turkle has observed, as a technology teacher I really want to drive the point home to my students to make sure that they don’t yield their humanity to machines. When we can’t take time to look up for our devices, when we are in another place mentally, when we take for granted the family and friends we do have, it is definitely time for a change.
Turkle talks in her book about Paro, the therapeutic robot baby seal designed to offer company the elderly people in the nursing home. She hints at having reservations about using robots to do certain things that people normally do, like demonstrating love and affection.
Isn’t it a little sad? We have a world full of people who can’t seem to make real connections with other people and they are miserable for it. We use technology to connect, but also to put a safe distance between us and those we would connect with.
We are immersed in technology, but we rarely consider the implications of this immersion. I think it was Neil Postman who said something to this effect. We don’t consider how technology is changing us. Don’t get me wrong. I’m far from being a techno-luddite. I use this stuff every day. I just think it’s important enough that we should be aware that it is affecting us, and try to make conscious decisions about how and when we use it. If we are using it to place distance between ourselves and other people, perhaps it’s time to reconsider that strategy.
Over the winter break, I took an interterm class in Playback Theatre, a form of Drama Therapy so I could hone my storytelling skills. It was a very powerful experience, and knowing that I teach computers, the instructor of the course, Randy Mulder, was always quick to point out that these direct person to person experiences allow us to connect in ways that we never could do through computers. I agree, but I didn’t argue the point that the reverse is true and that computers also permit us to connect in ways that face to face interactions do not.
For one thing, technology never forgets, but the human memory fades. That’s precisely why I wrote a blog post about The Power of Playback while it was still fresh in my memory. I didn’t ever want to forget how it well it worked, but I knew those immediate thoughts and feelings would eventually fade. Imagine how my life would have been shortchanged if I had not moved out of my comfort zone and tried something new with that course. I strongly believe I am bringing new ideas and energies into the classes I teach from that experience. If I had kept those old barriers up, not allowing any risks or chances of being embarrassed or hurt, I wouldn’t have done that course and would have missed out on all of the good that it did for me.
I guess this post is all about balance. It’s about keeping a strong connection in the physical world and it’s personal relationships, but leveraging those wonderful things that draw us to technology as well. But above all, always remembering that we are human; we need to feel closely connected and to feel loved.