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Umar Zulqarnain Headshot

Why We Are Together but Feel Alone

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Over the past few years I have gradually become very antisocial. I remember a time when I always wanted to be "connected" to the world, to be talking to people, to be around people. I began to find that I preferred time to myself in quiet contemplation. I began to prefer my own company. It was time I could spend attempting to look within myself, to learn about myself. Recently, when I decided to delve back into the social realm, I was in for a surprise. The more people I would meet and talk to, the more I would see recurring patterns. It was an unexpected opportunity to learn about myself and others.

I realized how much technology is changing the dynamics of our relationships, it is changing how we treat people and the value we place on conversations and ultimately relationships. Technology is robbing us. Technology has become a roadblock in our ability to grow. Technology is putting us in a place where we are not "alone enough" for quiet contemplation, not "alone enough" to learn about ourselves, yet it is providing us with the illusion of being connected, of feeling the presence of others in our lives. Technology is robbing us of our ability to build genuine relationships.

It is, however, important to make the distinction that it is not an inherent quality within that form of communication that is leading us down this path, technology can be used without its detrimental effects. I think it is important for us to understand what the problem is, to understand our role in facilitating it, and how we can make changes to live an emotionally healthy life that fosters self-awareness and opportunities to build genuine relationships.

Technology is creating a generation of people who are both afraid of loneliness and of intimacy. We hide from others while being connected to them. We turn to technology in those moments of loneliness, those moments when we feel that we need human contact. We turn to technology because that feeling gives us anxiety, makes us sad, and makes us feel alone. That is our biggest fear. To be alone. Interactions become a transaction of words rather than meaningful conversations. Conversations becomes a self-serving tool that are used to fulfill our own needs.

We decide where we direct our attention. We decide when we give others attention and how much. The paradox lies in our inner state. We often feel anxiety when we are alone, anxiety that there is no one there. Yet our lack of self-awareness leads us to feel distant during conversations. So when that void created by loneliness is presumed to be filled, we are still left with a feeling of being connected but being apart.

Technology allows us to hide from others while being connected. We can edit who we are, what we say, and how we are perceived. We become willing to dispense with people and comfortable with being dispensed. We can decide when to communicate and how much. We become willing to leave when things are difficult, we are willing to turn away our attention when we become anxious.

We turn to technology because of anxiety from feeling alone and unconnected, but technology feeds another form of anxiety. Our ability to edit ourselves increases our desire to be perceived by others a certain way. We begin to place more value in what others think about us. We begin to reinforce the subconscious belief that who we are is a product of what others think of us. This feeling causes social anxiety, it makes us feel uneasy, and often it makes us feel cornered during conversation. We become afraid and unwilling to continue when we encounter what is perceived as lack of control. When we don't know what to say, when we don't know how to respond, we become afraid, we become terrified, we become anxious.

The reality is, relationships are demanding. Relationships require effort and they require us to be uncomfortable. For us to foster healthy relationships, it requires us to become comfortable with loneliness.

Until we feel "loneliness," we can't understand ourselves. Until we feel "loneliness," we can't learn how to be alone. And until we begin to love our own company, we can't genuinely love others for who they are. A paradox? Loving our own company means facing our demons, facing our insecurities, facing the anxiety, the moments of sadness and longing for human contact. Understanding where those feelings come from and why.

Becoming comfortable with loneliness means we can enter relationships for the right reasons. As Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali said, "a person may at lesser levels love self, or others as they serve self. But in the highest form of love we love the other not merely for the happiness the other brings us; the thing itself is our happiness." This statement provides immense guidance for how to build healthy relationships. If we are connecting with people to get rid of our loneliness, we are using those people for selfish reasons. They become dispensable. If we attempt to build relationships simply out of the desire to love others, our love for others is the source of our happiness. Our happiness is our love, it is internal and does not require any reciprocity. How others respond to that love, the difficulties and hurdles that come in our way have no bearing on that feeling. Our love for others is the end in itself. We love for the sake of love.

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