The year is 2060. Professor Updike stands to take the podium for the keynote speech at his university’s annual communications conference.
Professor Updike is a clean-shaven African American man in his mid-forties. To the audience, however, these details are irrelevant. Everyone in attendance is wearing virtual reality glasses—a technology that allows each person to customize their own reality and seamlessly overlay that reality onto the physical world. This technology, at one time experimental and cumbersome, has now become normal and ubiquitous. In fact, it has become unusual not to see people wearing these glasses, although there remain some neo-Luddite holdouts in the rural areas.
Through their VR glasses, some people see Professor Updike as he would have looked twenty-five years ago as an undergraduate. Others have adjusted their VR settings to see him as a white person, or another race of preference. For still others, the professor appears to be giving his speech completely nude.
Learning to lovingly ‘tune-in’ to what another person is feeling is ultimately an act of attentive love and self-donation. I’m increasingly convinced that in our age of distractions, inattention and scattered focus, the greatest gift we can offer someone is simply to listen. For many people, the most they can hope to receive is a few “likes” to something they posted on Facebook—a crude substitute for genuine listening. But when we really make ourselves present to another by truly listening, this is healing. It is healing because it assures the other person that she (or he) is valuable, that she doesn’t need to feel shame about her vulnerability and pain, and that I love her not in spite of her vulnerability and weakness but because of it. For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys. To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient.
Not long after digital books started becoming readily accessible on the internet, I began hearing that one of their advantages was that they enabled key sections of a book to be extracted from the larger context. Instead of having to read the whole book, a person can use search tools and navigational aids to jump straight into the best sections.
What really caught my attention, however, is when I began being told that eventually the context of a book, even a work of fiction, might pass into irrelevancy as an anachronistic relic of our literary past. Instead, sections of literary works might come to be organized according to new fluid contexts that emerge organically from algorithms based on user preferences. In an article on the post-literary mind, Mark Federman called this emerging model “the UCaPP world” (UCaPP stands for “ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate.”) Federman described this as
“a world of relationships and connections. It is a world of entangled, complex processes, not content. It is a world in which the greatest skill is that of making sense and discovering emergent meaning among contexts that are continually in flux. It is a world in which truth, and therefore authority, is never static, never absolute, and not always true.”
In their book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan make some observations about how the wrong use of technology is eroding people’s ability to exercise empathy. On my previous blog I shared their observations in the second post of my series on empathy. Here are the links:
In my earlier blog post ‘Studies Link Facebook With Social Comparison and Depression‘, I shared the report on two fascinating studies published last October in the ‘Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.’ These studies showed a correlation between Facebook use and the tendency to compare ourselves to others and thus become depressed. A new but related study was published in April this year, again in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. This study focused on the role social media plays in fomenting envy in our hearts.
Among my circle of friends, I’m always the last one to find out the news. Why? Because I don’t read Facebook. Anyone who is a “friend” of mine on Facebook may find that hard to believe, given how active I appear to be. But my Facebook activity is rather like C.S. Lewis’s relation to the newspaper: the fact that Lewis never read the newspaper didn’t stop him from publishing articles in it. I mainly use Facebook narcissistically to encourage people to read about the latest things I’m thinking about (ironically, I’ll probably post this article on Facebook), and to promote my articles so I can earn more money. I’ve felt bad about this, and sometimes think I should spend more time “reading the news feeds” to give other people more attention. But after finding out about some studies last year, I’m no longer going to feel guilty for not spending hours and hours on Facebook like my friends do.
The studies, published last in the ‘Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology,’ showed that time spent on Facebook correlated with depressive symptoms for both men and women. The article, which you can download as a PDF here, tells how it wasn’t just ordinary Facebook viewing that was linked to depression, but Facebook viewing in which social comparisons took place. “Social comparisons occur when people automatically contrast themselves with others on abilities or attributes they deem important.” This type of comparison often happens on an unconscious level that we are not aware of until it’s pointed out to us.