I’m sitting alone in a fast-food restaurant Sunday evening. There are people everywhere. A family with a couple of unhappy little girls. Tattooed men who rode up on motorcycles. Older couples dressed for church. Sullen teens ignoring each other and staring at their phones.
There’s noise all around me. Beeping machines in the kitchen. People shouting at children. An angry manager yelling at employees.
But I might as well be alone. The earbuds attached to my iPhone play music which drowns out the environment. The unreal world of social media on my MacBook is actually more real to me than any of these people are. They’re like cardboard cutouts with faces. I don’t know them and they don’t know me. And they don’t know each other.
We have more communication devices than ever. We don’t even go to bed without them. Media no longer just talks to us. Our most popular media is “social media.” These are the choices we’re making.
So why do so many feel so alone? Why is real human intimacy harder to find than ever — especially from the people who are supposed to know us best?
Most people don’t even seem to know what intimacy is anymore. For most, it seems to have become a euphemism for sex. But sex and intimacy only sometimes overlap. In this sex-obsessed culture, sex has become a cheap substitute for intimacy — but a lot of people have no understanding of what they’re missing.
Over the last century, we have slowly surrounded ourselves with devices and services which make intimacy with those around us less likely. Early radio broadcasting and then early television broadcasting seemed like innocent entertainment for bored families, but electronic media grew and grew — to the point that some form of television or screen time dominates the lives of almost everybody in a family today.
There was a time when it was almost impossible to live with people without becoming intimate with them — their thoughts and feelings and needs. There was little competing for attention except for drunken nights out with friends or social community with religious or civic groups.
Well, drunken nights with acquaintances still exist — though the community of church life is shrinking — but we now have devices and services which allow us to live in little cocoons even when we’re with one another. Everybody can be in a different room of the house watching a different screen. Even people in the same room are lost in the world inside a phone or tablet.
There’s nothing objectively wrong with any of these devices or services, but they slowly come to dominate lives — especially the lives of people who don’t really know each other and who discover they don’t even especially like each other.
These devices and services allow us to escape. Some people will go out with others for who-knows-what, but even those who occupy the same space lose touch with one another. Some people are actually terrified of being known intimately — for one reason or another — so these distractions are a welcome way to wall themselves off.
If we can avoid being intimate with someone, it’s easy to hide from him the fact that we don’t love him or don’t like him or don’t want to spend time with him. It’s easy to get ourselves into patterns by which we can live with people and never have to deal with the realities of relationships that need to be fixed or ended.
More than 30 years ago, songwriter Bob Bennett wrote about this kind of relationship in a song called “Together All Alone.”
He rolls home after the house is dark
His heart as cold as a stone
And he lies back to back with his wife in the sack
Together all alone
Intimacy means different things in different relationships. There should be intimacy between parents and their children, between children and their friends, among family members, and between a husband and wife.
In a romantic relationship, healthy intimacy can lead to a healthy sexual relationship, but when sex happens without intimacy, it becomes “mutual masturbation.” The paradox is that sex without intimacy ultimately drives people apart — and it leads to the need for greater and greater substitutes, whether it’s porn or other sex partners.
We know that emotional issues run rampant in our society. There is more depression than ever. More people are reporting being unhappy and lonely, even though we live in a prosperous society surrounded by more and more people.
We’re unhappy and lonely because we don’t have the healthy intimacy we need. We are isolating ourselves from one another, if not physically, at least emotionally.
For most of us, this didn’t start out as a conscious choice. We did the things which are “normal” for our society — and slowly discovered that we were isolating ourselves. Nobody really knows us. And nobody is helping us meet our emotional needs.
This can change only with individuals making deliberate choices to become more intentional with their time and attention. It has to happen through individuals recognizing the problem and deciding which of the things which hide us from each other have to go.
Of course, the sad truth is that most of the people who are “together all alone” probably shouldn’t even be together. But by distracting themselves with devices and services — and drunken nights apart — they unconsciously blind themselves to the truth.
And denial about truth always seems easier in the short term, but the price is always higher in the long term.
I don’t like this feeling that I’m among all these people and we don’t know each other. Honestly, I don’t really want to know these people, for the most part. But as I look around and feel the longing in my heart for intimacy, I recognize the desire for community and the desire for a healthy, loving relationship.
These things don’t change overnight — but they can never change until we admit that we need to make the changes, whatever the cost might be.
Living together all alone is killing us on the inside.