There's a man I know who is talented, empathic, possessed of a keen intellect and frightened of everything. The fear has been built the way thunderstorms gather over mountains -- imperceptibly at first, then slowly, silently but with great force. With every approaching rumble, it has shut his world down piece by piece. First it was work, then it was social activities, then it was driving and finally it was family. His universe has folded in like a sheet, corner over corner, until it has reduced his life to spending the day in front of the computer trolling YouTube. He didn't understand how it all happened and his anguish was palpable -- so was my confusion.
"You're living other people's lives," I said.
"They're giving me their lives," he answered tersely. Clearly I had no idea what was going on in cyberspace or how such a thing could happen to someone so gifted.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
He explained that there were people who addressed their audiences daily, sharing from their own lives and "interacting" with their fans about everything from hair care to emotional and physical intimacy. Nothing was verboten. The video monologue disguised as discussion might as well have been occurring between lovers. There was no pretense of "expertise" in any particular field, just one human being talking to another (well, sort of) over high-speed cables.
"They give so much," he added poignantly.
"Wouldn't someone real?" I was baffled.
"But you'd have to go and find someone real. These people are just delivered to you."
"Like Chinese food," I thought, but didn't say. In my mind I became lost in my own past, when I was very young and very foolish and due to various all-nighters was unable to get into a car or walk to a grocery to get food. I thought of the times that I had called for delivery and what motivated that avoidance -- whether it was lethargy or fear.
I believe it was mostly lethargy, but there were a few times when it was fear. It didn't happen often and it wasn't with the ferocity or chronicity of this fellow's experience, but it was enough to begin to understand the call to sequester he was hearing. It's a formidable thing, fear, particularly when it is not rational. A rational fear (there is a bus heading for me and I must move or die) can be argued for or against. There it is -- or isn't. Either there is someone following you or there is not. An irrational fear -- that which stems from within as opposed to without (like a bus or a real stalker rather than a paranoid delusion) -- is a much harder thing both to face and fight.
The times I called for food to be delivered so I could continue "hiding" in my apartment were, as I recall, times I didn't feel particularly good about myself. My fear was of being seen and judged. I fully admit that the fear was decidedly not rational, because there was no particular reason for any judgment (who knew me and who cared? It was New York!) Furthermore, I don't believe retrospectively that I looked especially bizarre or off-putting. I felt bad about behaving badly and believed, erroneously, that someone else would see right through me. I was afraid of the judgment I was already indicting upon myself.
A man who is very dear to me is a recovering alcoholic. When I asked him if he had ever been afraid of going out of his house, he answered in no uncertain terms, "for more than two years."
His story takes place moments before the internet became de rigueur, around the turn of the millennium. He has not had a drink in nearly a decade, but those last struggles are still painfully vivid. His liver was moving toward a meltdown, his faculties were frayed, his hitherto well-planned life a shambles. "I became afraid of everything: of collapsing in public, of being judged, of having a panic attack and being out there with no help. I was afraid of being afraid, of breathing, of being without alcohol, of needing more alcohol. It was so overpowering, I stayed home. I couldn't do anything else."
If he had been connected to a thing such as YouTube as a substitute for human relationship, it is entirely possible that he would have never gotten out of the house. What he believes saved him were the relationships in his life. His friends called him and he answered the call. He went out, even if sporadically. Those friends were the ones who drove him to rehab. For some reason -- and I admit I still don't know what that is -- his fear did not overtake him the way it did our other fellow and he lives to talk about it with others.
I am sure there are numerous studies about the effects of the Internet on relationships, just as I am equally sure of the numerous effects and speculations that result from it. How could there not be? I know that texting has had a profound effect on people's (particularly young people's) ability to speak in full sentences. But this essay is not about the effect of the internet on us. Rather the opposite. It is fully about us. It is about what is in our hearts (or not in our hearts, like faith or courage or self-worth) when we sit down at a computer. It is about what we bring to the cyber-table (like a fear of being seen or judged) that makes us mortally vulnerable to a system of pseudo-intimacy that offers free delivery.
It is a human story, not an empirical one. The sad truth is that while YouTube may sometimes be fun, it is not a relationship. Nor can it ever be a relationship. It is a one, not even a two-dimensional format. It is a dead-end street. It is delivered, yes, but nothing more may be asked of the deliverer and nothing may be given back.
I wonder, now, if that isn't precisely what keeps our first fellow sitting in front of the screen, if the fear is that someone real would require something in return? Or, worse, that he may find a swell of love in his own heart and wish to give something back only to be refused or rejected?
What is the ultimate consequence of this behavior? It is not, as some people falsely conclude, that people are hoodwinked by the internet's false promises. It is actually worse. It is that their fear cuts them off and they are kept from ever loving. For to love one must be able to give either selflessly or in return for being loved. It is, in fact, the a priori definition of love. This is perhaps the worst and saddest sort of emotional twinkie, the kind we keep insisting should make us feel better but never, ever does.