Last week I touched on the connection I feel while in the mountains. It’s not just alpine scenery and granite peaks that enliven this sense of completeness in me; I feel it when I’m at the continent’s edge hypnotized by rolling ocean waves and when I gaze over western deserts where mesa after mesa blend together into a wonderful invitation to join them. These experiences reengage the senses that are so often numbed by concrete, digital screens and daily life patterns. Today’s default living situation places us in cars, cubicles and fences, quite literally hunched into ourselves over keyboards and touchscreens. Never mind the psychological implications of this, physically we can’t even breathe freely slumped over our phones.
The Age of Social Media is both a lifesaver and soul-killer. After centuries of slow migration from communal outdoor living to indoor solitary confinement we have finally found a way to reconnect with the world outside of our individual bubbles. In between steps up the corporate ladder we can share ideas, wander foreign streets or visit a virtual neighbor’s kitchen for breakfast. This amazing modern convenience certainly has some value (obviously I’m taking advantage of it!) and must help some of us retain a sense of connection with the world, and with other humans. There is undoubtedly someone on Instagram with the same worries, or with the same dog, or with the same love of avocado toast.
Unfortunately, relying on these virtual connections also results in dangerous disengagement from our immediate environment, and from our own individual spirit. For some it may turn into discontent with his own perceived lackluster life compared to FB check ins, or obsessions with unrealistic ideals (anyone see the recent “Ingrid Goes West” film?). FOMO on the latest IG post is rampant; FOMO on the real life experience and connection opportunities now seems less important.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” A. Einstein
No matter the cause, our perception of separateness from something greater (I call it The Universe) is clearly a timeless human struggle. It’s hard to describe the exact feelings that my own depressions leave me with, but one of the most overpowering is that of standing alone, paralyzed and disembodied, with the world swirling around me but out of my grasp. It feels like I’m not meant to be, that I’m an interloper, misplaced in some huge mistake by The Universe. I don’t easily connect with people. Save for a handful of friends I knew immediately were kindred spirits, most people don’t click with me. As an introvert managing a pretty extreme case of Only Child Syndrome, I am okay with this and value my independence. But the larger sense of not belonging in this world is overwhelming and sometimes frightening. Not discounting some real physiological factors, I think this perceived separateness is the largest contributing factor to most people’s mental distress.
For many, organized religion has provided comfort, in my eyes largely due to the social aspect of a weekly congregation. Most modern day theologies don’t solve this for me, as it seems they still present god as a being separate from my Self. Others try to fill – or forget – the emptiness with alcohol, food or human relationships. Most of my personal coping mechanisms are merely distractions from the real work I need to do. Neither compulsive exercise disguised as “training” nor micromanaging my appetite and nutrition under the pretense of “health” offer connection to anything outside of myself; they are self-centered obsessions that only further disconnect me from The Universe.
So far, my truest sense of belonging comes only when immersed in wilderness. I feel real, whole, like Me, and I lose all anxiety about how to cope in a foreign environment. Over and over again companions have told me that I’m a different person out there. It doesn’t always have to be an epic adventure, but as soon as I step off the trails I am back to not knowing what to do with myself. Sadly I can’t spend every moment of my life getting dirty, although I admit to having daydreams of Christopher McCandless-ing the rest of my life, so the work I need to do involves accepting the wholeness into life off the trail. The connection I tap into outdoors is still there; I can still access it, apply it to any condition, and find peace.