I am conflicted about this post. The internet, more than anything else, has contributed to our currently divided state. And yet, it is a powerful tool of connection. How to leverage the benefits while decrying the rest? I suppose the first step is to recognize that we are all addicts. We love our cozy cocoons of like-minded friends. Echo chambers are reassuring. The internet has made it easy, and self-reinforcing.
Over the last few weeks, I've read a number of thoughtful analyses of the American experiment as it now stands. In his oft-shared article, Timothy Snyder (Yale history professor) takes it a step further, and suggests concrete actions to defend democracy. The one that resonated most with me was, "Practice Corporeal Politics". Snyder suggests that by getting offline, and being with people- especially strangers, we can find our common bonds again. (If only it were that simple).
But maybe it IS that simple. So many of us are out in the world on a daily basis, yet how often do we have a conversation with someone in line at the grocery store, at the library, or in a cafe? Our habit these days is to disengage, to go into our separate (read: online) worlds, full of things and people we know. It's easy. And understandable in a rather alarming period of history.
If there's a common refrain these days, it's social media burnout. We tire of the overstimulation and newsification of our lives there. It is not a true human place, tho sometimes true human connection can be found there. So, I'm not one of those "banish yourself from the online world" people...yet there are ways to find meaningful balance while also being a citizen of the world. My suggestions:
1.) Join the board of a non-profit or volunteer on a committee. To sit in a room and work through a problem, to sometimes not solve a problem, to come back and find a middle ground, is deeply rewarding as much as it is challenging. Learning to respectfully disagree, negotiate different communication styles, and define a mission is a stimulating group exercise that (hopefully) changes all those involved.
2.) Take a walk and strike up a conversation with someone in a park, on the street, or in a cafe. Too often we shrink from face-to-face interactions when they can be a source of deep connection. Try to find a common cause, even with a person with whom you think you share nothing.
3.) Leave your phone at home for a day. This is insanity, no? We've become used to our appendages, and I admit that I'm writing this as a challenge to myself as much as to you. We use our devices as a shield and an escape hatch. Slowly pry it out of your hand, walk away, and see what happens: remember life before we had these tools and bask in the simplicity.
4.) Offer your services to a local charity. Can you design a poster, drive an elderly person somewhere, wrangle volunteers or stuff envelopes? Great! You can be of use to a group near you. And certainly not just around the holidays. Take the initiative and reach out to a few organizations.
5.) Keep informed on the issues, and discuss them in real life, with respect. Our republic is in an age of willful ignorance. Everyone has access to news and books. Consult a variety of sources: print investigative journalism, public television, scientific studies, foreign coverage. Set a time limit each day, so that you don't feel inundated. Try to practice talking about politics without rancor.
6.) Remember that every person you encounter wants the same things you do. They want a roof over their head, food to eat, a job with dignity, their family taken care of, and their community safe. Remember that many of us were born with privileges that we didn't ask for, but we should be aware of them and actively work toward the equality of all people.
Photograph above by me: Buffalo's harbor lighthouse, one of the oldest structures in the city.