Solitude and Superficiality

Part 2 of a Two-Part Essay

This week we are continuing with the technology theme, but as it relates to empathy and solitude. The author of the New York Times article I mentioned in part 1 also discusses research showing that the use of smartphones and other similar devices actually fosters disrespect and lack of empathy because people end up paying more attention to their devices than to their human companions. She does not merely bemoan our failings, though; she provides the solution – conversation! She promotes actually taking tech holidays or having tech-free zones at home, and engaging in face-to-face conversations with other people. She advises this for children especially, so they do not succumb to the dehumanization caused by overuse of their devices. She states that by learning to converse, children also learn empathy.

“Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.”

Today’s wireless communication technology has many drawbacks that are masked by their ease of use, and people allow it to dictate their lives instead of being in charge themselves. People seem to lack the fortitude to restrain themselves and make judicious use of their tools, showing that, again, our moral development has not kept pace with our technological development. I find Professor Turlke’s article refreshing and true, and sincerely hope that her advice will be taken.

But our devices can both separate and connect us; I do not believe that people are really alone when using their devices. The phones and tablets provide connection to other people, however far away, and regardless of the separating interface of the device. The way to be alone is to separate oneself physically as well as mentally, and that includes even the artificial connection of devices. When we are alone, we can find ourselves and we can hear God. Jangling about at work, in traffic, in crowds, we are unable to attend to the quiet voice within because we must contend with the externals that surround us. Taking the time and effort to achieve solitude is not only worthwhile but necessary, because in this way we become whole.

“The capacity for empathic conversation goes hand in hand with the capacity for solitude. In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours. If we can’t gather ourselves, we can’t recognize other people for who they are. If we are not content to be alone, we turn others into the people we need them to be. If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely.”

If we take Professor Turkle’s advice, we can learn the joys of both solitude and companionship. Professor Turkle holds that solitude also is necessary for the development of empathy. I agree and say that not only is it necessary for empathy, but more importantly, for contemplation; learning to set aside one’s phone can also promote one’s connection with the Divine. Through contemplation, one increases in awareness of the suffering of others and develops a larger sphere of moral concern that can include even the natural and supernatural world, supporting the development of empathy and enlivening one’s solitude with the awareness of the Ultimate.


Copyright © 2015 Teresa Chupp.  All rights reserved.


For further reading on this topic, see “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” by Sherry Turkle, a professor in the program in Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T. The New York Times article mentioned and quoted above is adapted from this book.


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