The lost art of being alone

First slide

Three times today, an email asked for my “bio.” While it’s not at all unusual for freelance writers to be asked to write a blurb for an article or essay or book, it is a bit of a coincidence for me to need all three in one day. As I sat with hands poised on a keyboard, I considered this task. How to reduce the essence of me to 100 characters or fewer? I glanced at the other tabs currently on my keyboard. I’ve been editing college essays and grad school essays and law school essays. All to say, this has been a day spent in “tell me about yourself” mode. I left the keyboard with an eye on the clock and went for a run.

 

Out there in the crisp air, the satisfying crunch of leaves beneath my feet, I remembered when I wrote my college essay. Five hundred words about skiing. It was the first time I had to polish myself up and present who I was to the public. What a stark contrast that writing experience was to the ones faced by the three young adults whose words are behind the tabs on my computer. They’ve grown up in a digital age where daily they text, and tweet, and update statuses, and post small squares that are to represent their essence. Daily, they submit themselves to the judgments of people “out there” who peer into their lives and think that by so doing they can know their souls.

I do it, too. My vocation as a writer has changed dramatically. The quiet, solitary pursuit in front of an isolated keyboard has become an extroverted foray into the world of “platforms.” Every pitch to an editor is prefaced by the numbers that assure her of my “reach.” Where once the most important thing was to be understood in print, now it is most definitely to be known.

I think of my four children who are not yet of application essay-writing age. So pervasive is social media in their lives that they are already proficient in making themselves both known and polished. They know, almost intuitively, how to filter an image just so or edit the phrasing of a retelling just enough to present the rendition most likely to garner the admiration of their peers on whatever platform they post.

I marvel at the internet. After posting a prayer request for a friend who has just been dealt a terrible blow, I sit back and watch how she is flooded with support from near and far — people who will light candles and pray, and people who will appear at her door with meals and childcare and flowers. There is a force there for community, for reaching out and really knowing another. Simultaneously, there is the insidious insistence that we compete and compare with other people’s carefully cropped renditions of reality. For my children who have never known another way to exist, I am mournful.

I remember how hard it was to be 13 — all the things I wrestled in my head while I sat eating perfect peaches under an old oak hung with Spanish moss in my South Carolina backyard. I remember the details of the day: the heat and humidity, the way the peach dripped down my arm, the number of steps between that oak and a similar one two doors down at my best friend’s house. Details are burned into a mind that is undistracted and fully aware of the present place. It is in the moments of being truly alone that God reveals to us who we really are — who He created us to be. At 13, the age of initiation to Facebook and Instagram, are our children ever truly alone?

Can they be still before God? Can they even be still within themselves? Can they be quiet and comfortable and alone, with only the Holy Spirit as company?

Can we?

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

@elizabethfoss