We live in an era of absolute interconnectedness. We know it and read about it everywhere. We know what each of our contacts (using the term “friend” here would belittle its true meaning) is doing every day. We constantly receive messages on our various messengers, we let everyone know where we are with our locating devices, we call each other to exchange trivial titbits that aren’t worth the effort it takes to call the person in question.
Decades ago, when people were starting to get mobile phones, I remember waiting for a bus in Paris, seeing everyone at the bus stop texting or calling whoever, and thinking: “Phones have now replaced cigarettes.” Until then, when you were stuck in a situation where you could do nothing but wait, most people would take out their packet of cigarettes and light one to pass the time. That was already what mobile phones were becoming for us 20 years ago: not a means to communicate, but one to pass the time. This tendency has, of course, become the rule since the appearance and complexification of smart phones, making us feel that using them is truly useful, if not necessary. When actually, we often just use them to pass the time and avoid boredom.
Meanwhile, the great majority of people have most likely rarely felt as alone as they do now. One of the texts that best represents this feeling for me are the lyrics of the song “One against another” (“Les uns contre les autres”) in the Franco-Québécois legendary 1970s rock opera “Starmania”. In it, the robotic waitress sings:
“We sleep one against another
We live with one another
We caress each other, we cuddle each other
We understand each other, we comfort each other
But in the end, we realise
We’re always all alone in the world
“We dance with one another
We run one after another
We hate each other, we tear each other apart
We destroy each other, we desire each other
But in the end, we realise
We’re always all alone in the world”
Considering this text was written by Luc Plamondon to Michel Berger’s heart wrenching minor chords decades before the 21st Century, one could argue that people have always felt – and been – alone. This is a universal truth after all: we are born alone, we die alone, and in a way, we experience everything in between alone as well. We are alone in that no one will ever walk in our shoes, nobody else will have had exactly the life that each of us has. In that sense, we are alone in life and in death, as no one can truly understand what each of us is going through.
But in view of this, we have two choices. Either we can try to share what goes on inside us and empathise with one another, or we can rejoice in the fact that we are free to be who we are, knowing that there is no copy of us anywhere. We are not tied down by other people’s needs, wishes, wants unless we choose to be. This is Pinocchio’s philosophy:
“I’ve got no strings to hold me down
To make me fret, or make me frown
I had strings, but now I’m free
There are no strings on me”
When you live in an interconnected society, your everyday decisions and actions are affected by others. Planning anything, doing anything, becomes a complicated and tiring affair. The simplest deed becomes a juggling act, never knowing how many balls might be added in the process. Again, like in “Pinocchio” when other marionettes join him, we get tangled in all the strings surrounding us and find ourselves unable to move.
Reflecting on all of this, I also remember a ghost village I visited in the Balkans years ago. It was probably last inhabited about a hundred years ago and the structure was fascinating to me. The village was made up of circles: one for each family. In the centre of each circle, there was a comfortably sized stone house in which the elders were living with their grandchildren. Around this house, the villagers built one-room wooden cabins for the middle generation, i.e. the parents of the children staying in the stone house. This dynamic was the smartest construction I’d come across. In it, the little kids kept the elders lively and alert, the elders shared their wisdom with the juniors of the family. Meanwhile, the adult couples were able to work in the fields all day and keep their intimacy at night, while seeing their children every day when all of them gathered for meals. That’s the kind of interconnectedness that seems balanced and healthy. And real.
What we have now sometimes seems to lack the advantages while having all the inconveniences of being connected to each other. We have little time and space just to ourselves, away from other people’s voices and opinions, but have next to no face-to-face daily support. So the question is: who is there for you when you’re not on Facebook, when your phone’s battery dies or when you feel terrible despite the upbeat tone of your posts?
Another question I ask myself is: Who is still there, willing to forgive and support you, when you change your plans, when you don’t do what you know you should? Whatever the answer may be, those are the people you need to stick to. At the end of the day, we may each be alone to feel the way we do and to really know what we know, but there are some precious individuals who are always willing to ease our burdens and share our joys. And there are people we are willing to go out of our way for, not because we have to, but because we want to. They are not all on Facebook, but they truly are friends.
(Title taken from Pinocchio in Walt Disney’s eponymous film,
lyrics by Leigh Harline & Ned Washington)