I have gradually become a rather avid podcast listener. In the aftermath of losing most of my interest in reading as a hobby (for which I blame Mrs. Kruse, and college classes in general), and in my ever-increasing sensitivity to emotional distress in all aspects of life which makes most television pretty unbearable to watch, podcasts have become an enjoyable compromise. They are varying degrees of educational, which satisfies my learner’s brain, and the stories they often contain are much more real-life (and therefore, less unbearably distressing or dramatic) than what TV shows and movies can offer. I like that the pace is slow, the discussion is overwhelmingly “normal,” and I can work with my hands and eyes while my ears take in the information.
But, like all media, they can be annoyingly diagnostic of my current emotional wellbeing.
More than once in the last week (we won’t talk about how much more than once) I caught myself staring blankly at my computer screen while the Bluetooth speaker blared on endlessly, strangers’ voices continuing a conversation I had lost track of twenty minutes ago, brain split between the complexities of formatting a manuscript in Adobe InDesign and that annoying subconscious awareness that I was purposely trying to drown myself out.
There’s a dual theme to my favorite podcasts: Conversation and consistency. I listen to shows in which the same two or three people co-host every episode in a loosely-structured conversational format. I hardly care what they’re talking about; yes, I listen to shows that reflect my own interests, like the Bible, health, self-improvement, or non-inflammatory news and political commentary. But in the past week alone I’ve listened to a show about “Wisdom Gained in Our 30s” (I’m 25), home decor (which is fine, but I don’t really care about it), and a discussion on postpartum recovery (despite the fact that I’ve never had a baby and am not pregnant), just to name a few. Sure, there’s an element of these shows that feeds my curiosity and hunger to learn about how other people live and what they care about, but overall these topics are not exactly what I’d consider reflective of my current interests or place in life. What I need is the conversation, the stimulation, the taste of being part of something.
When I start to binge on such shows, I know that my brain is trying to communicate something to me which I’d rather not hear.
Like Hey. You’re lonely.
Gah, I hate being lonely. I hate the feeling of needing people. I hate the fact that I can’t healthfully subsist in isolation and that part of my call as a disciple of Jesus is to be just one working part of His whole, diverse body. And I hate it when my attempts at pseudo-community fail to take the ache away.
Ironically, I know that in this, I’m not alone. Authenticity is a buzzword in our world, and people keep trying to share their “imperfections” on Instagram in aspiration for vulnerability and relationship, but somehow it seems we’re all more isolated than ever before - maybe because only some imperfections are socially acceptable enough for public consumption, and if your only evident vulnerability is the short temper you wrote about in a caption online, what does that say about my dissolving relationships or secret addiction or desperate depression?
Some of the most bonding real-life conversations I’ve had recently have been based on the admission that I am lonely, and you are lonely, and we don’t know why or what to do about it. The trouble is that this seems to be where the conversation always ends, and then we return to our faithful Friendship Substitutes. For me it’s podcasts, but for you it could be TV, books, food, drink, social media, busy work, or any of a number of other options. Those things place no demands on us, and they make us feel better for awhile, but even in the healthiest usage they don’t solve the problem.
So how is this problem solved? Once we’ve bonded over our mutual loneliness, where do we go from there?
I can’t say I know a definitive step-by-step strategy, but my instincts say we need to move toward each other. We need to cut ties with our Friendship Substitutes long enough to get hungry for the real thing, and then move toward each other - offline, in real life, where I can see your face and hear your voice and touch your hand. The world is becoming more virtual and less real all the time, but our bodies and brains are designed for what is real. Our hormones and chemicals respond to what is real. Bonding happens in the real world.
A trendy hashtag does not a community make.
Last weekend I took a self-defense class at my church. I’ve been attending services there for seven months, but had hardly met anyone at all yet. I didn’t want to go to the class because I would be alone in a room full of strangers, but I went anyway.
And they were real.
All it took was for someone to say hello and start the conversation, to make eye contact and smile, and to start practicing hand-to-hand self defense with me, and I wasn’t alone anymore. I wasn’t lonely anymore. And more than that, I rediscovered a healthy appetite to be with real people in a real setting doing real things.
But here’s the rub, at least for me: once we’ve moved toward one another physically, we’ll need to start moving closer emotionally. We need those few, lovely people that we’re not only in bodily proximity with, but that are near to our souls. The people who know us for who we are - good, bad, or unimaginably terrible. They’re the ones who love us exactly the same no matter how much good, bad, or unimaginably terrible we bring with us, and who - by being the light that we desperately need shed on our inner worlds - will help to enact and reveal God’s work in us.
I’m not good at this. In fact, the real reason I often have to be dragged toward any kind of real-life social situation kicking and screaming is because I really, really don’t want to move toward others emotionally. In the aftermath of a formative friendship in which my trust and vulnerability was often exploited, I am happy to pretend, for as long as I can get away with it, that I don’t have any needs at all. But in this I’m not just isolating myself; I’m involuntarily isolating those around me who do have needs, and need to know they’re not the only ones.
I think it’s time to turn off the background noise and reach toward real-life relationships with real-life people. The kind that won’t just numb out the loneliness void, but fill it up and make it whole. The internet is a marvelous thing, but as much as it connects us, it will never be able to bond us.