The illusion of connection

 
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I sat slouched on the edge of my bed, blue light illuminating my face in the dark. It was the tenth time I’d checked my phone in the space of five minutes. I grimaced. Was something wrong with me?

I wasn’t awaiting an urgent email, or the reply of a love interest, or my university results, or a life-changing phone call. I had already read the latest social media updates; already watched all the cookie-decorating and calligraphy videos that littered my feed; already danced between Instagram and Facebook at least five times. So why was I still glued to my phone?

Instead of spending time fostering real-life relationships, I’d actively filled the void by “stalking” people online and distracting myself with frivolous entertainment. I’d begun justifying my solitary state by telling friends and family that I was “too busy to catch up”—an excuse that crumbled under the weight of hours of Instagram scrolling.

Deep down, underneath a plethora of excuses, I knew exactly why I was doing these things, and it was almost laughable.

I was lonely.

In a global society more connected than ever before, it seems ironic that loneliness is increasing. In a survey by Opinion Way, 90 per cent of Australians said they yearned for more real-life connections, despite 56 per cent reporting that they meet up with friends less because of social media, and 70 per cent stating that they prefer to watch television instead of connecting with family and friends.

In 2018, the Australian Loneliness Report revealed that 51 per cent of Australians feel lonely for at least one day per week, and 28 per cent feel lonely for three or more days per week. A Psychology Today blogpost referred to multiple studies that show loneliness can trigger higher levels of social anxiety, fewer social interactions, poorer sociological wellbeing and poorer quality of life. Further, lonely people are 15 per cent more likely to be depressed and 13 per cent more likely to be anxious about social interactions than those who don’t feel lonely.

In other words, being lonely can trigger poor mental health, and in turn, poor mental health can cause individuals to feel even lonelier. People stuck in this cycle may lack the motivation or confidence to break free, and instead resort to poor coping mechanisms like self-harm, smoking, drug addictions or compulsive technology use.

Ah yes, compulsive technology use. My personal Achilles heel.

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But I’m not alone. Most of us wake up to notifications first thing in the morning and check our phones right before we go to sleep. We feel naked without our devices and carry them with us everywhere we go. To avoid awkward social interactions—eye contact with strangers, failed jokes, forgetting someone’s name, Freudian slips or just embarrassing ourselves—we pull out our phones and scroll instead, avoiding the need to be seen. We fear that social encounters won’t meet our expectations; that we’ll be left out and forgotten, misunderstood, insulted or won’t receive the social approval we crave. And so we avoid real-life social interactions, resorting to contrived images on a screen; the illusion of connection.

At this point, it’s important to recognise that being alone and being lonely are very different experiences. Loneliness is a feeling of distress that people experience when their social encounters are not meaningful, or when they feel misunderstood by others. In contrast, a person who is alone feels secure in their relationships, but prefers to spend time by themselves. We can be surrounded by others but still feel lonely, and in contrast, we can be alone but not feel lonely.

But with so many individuals reporting feeling lonely on a regular basis, why do these same people actively avoid real-life social interactions?

It’s because loneliness is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem. A worthiness problem.

A famous quote that often features in rom-coms and litters Pinterest feeds is: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” I’d like to elaborate and suggest that we seek out the love we think we deserve. And ultimately, if we feel unworthy of love and connection, loneliness often follows.

Throughout her years of research, author and public speaker, Brene Brown, discovered that vulnerability is the key to genuine, fulfilling relationships. But rather than summoning the courage to risk failure and vulnerability—elements necessary to experiencing genuine connection—we often resort to maintaining the illusion of connection. In one swift reflex motion, we open our social media apps and we quickly become addicted.

Researcher and filmmaker, Matt D’Avella, likens the relationship between social media and social life to “the relationship between porn and sex”. Just like porn is less fulfilling than sex, social media is less fulfilling than real-life social interactions, but we keep returning to it because it is easily accessible, requires little vulnerability and releases a temporary rush of pleasure.

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But eventually, the rush fizzles out and we find ourselves staring at a screen, wondering why we feel empty inside; lonely once again. This is a widespread problem. As a society, we have become very good at distracting ourselves to avoid addressing the deeper internal struggles we experience. Namely, our need for genuine, meaningful human interaction; our need to feel worthy.

Recognising the damaging physical and mental effects of loneliness, director of the Brain Dynamics Lab at the University of Chicago, Dr Stephanie Cacioppo, is leading a team of medical researchers to develop a “loneliness pill” that she hopes will help to relieve the symptoms suffered by the acutely lonely. She believes that loneliness is just like thirst: a biological signal that has evolved to protect our survival.

As helpful as a pill might be to escape the loneliness cycle initially, I have to disagree with Dr Cacioppo. Loneliness isn’t merely a biological signal that protects our survival; it’s a symptom that we’re not living as we were created to live and, ultimately, of our disconnection from God.

When sin first entered the world in the Garden of Eden, it caused separation between God and humanity. God’s blazing perfection could not exist in proximity with sin, and humans, now flawed, would die in the presence of God’s glory. The connection with God was muted. Not able to walk and talk with God, we began to forget that God created us intentionally (Psalm 139:13, 14), crafted us with a purpose (Jeremiah 29:11) and loves us infinitely more than we can even comprehend (John 3:16).

Instead of internalising and walking in these truths—truths that can fill the internal void—we began to turn to things that we could see: relationships, food, sex, distractions, money, status, pride; things that are readily accessible and that can fill the inner void quickly. But none of these things gives us a secure sense of worth. Relationships break down, food disappears, distractions cease, money runs out and pride always comes before a fall.

But God’s love never fails (Psalm 136:1).

The only thing that can satisfy our loneliness is being reconnected to our Heavenly Father. But while we still live in sin, a complete connection isn’t possible—we can’t exist in His perfect presence. But God sent His Son to die the ultimate death and take on our sins so that one day we can be reunited with Him.

In the meantime, we must hold fast to the knowledge that we are loved by our Heavenly Father and listen for His whispers that do penetrate the veil. This truth can transform our loneliness into aloneness; our worthlessness into worthiness. And while it might not break the chains of technological addiction or loneliness cycles immediately, knowing that He will never leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6) can bring us tremendous peace. Knowing that He loves us (1 John 3:1) can curb our need for human validation and take away the anxiety that causes us to seek connection in the wrong places. Knowing that He cares when we feel abandoned is transformative.

For as long as people feel unworthy of genuine connection, they will avoid it. Our loneliness epidemic is actually a worthlessness epidemic. So perhaps the first step to developing deeper, more genuine relationships is to realise that you are worthy of love.

You are worthy of love because God, the creator of the universe, loves you.

 

Maryellen Fairfax is a law student, a panellist on the Mums at the Table TV show and an avid graphic designer. In her spare time she enjoys creating artwork . . . and catching up with friends.