The current age of digital renaissance has connected many across the world, unlike ever before. Yet, paradoxically, it has been reported that loneliness is at an all-time high.
In an age where passive engagements of sending “emojis” and “likes” are often equated with our feelings of self-worth, I wonder if such forms of validation translate to providing us with actual meaning. Perhaps it distorts our perception of reality and makes us feel even worse about ourselves when we cannot accrue a certain amount of validation.
As the globalized speed of the world perpetuates social and cultural mobility, we can often find ourselves surfacing the shadows of it, sometimes feeling small, like the “pale blue dot,” a phrase Carl Sagan used to describe how tiny the earth looked from space.
This “pale blue dot,” of which I speak, signified Earth. It was captured in space on February 14th, 1990 by Voyager 1, an explorer built by NASA. When the Voyager probe was 3.7 billion miles from Earth, NASA turned it around to snap a quick photograph of Earth, at the request of Carl Sagan.
In the great expanse of space, the farther away you are from Earth, you can very well see that the Earth, itself, is just one “pale blue dot.”
I wonder if this concept can be applied to the societal world around us: are we just one small dot, a figment; do we even matter in the grand scheme of things?
Consider a politically motivated behavior like voting, a behavior in which a lot people conclude that their input does not matter. But it does.
Or when a person goes through a tragic incident in their lives. Others are unsure how to console them, so they often do not say anything, out of feeling uncomfortable, or thinking it does not matter. But it does.
If we get stuck in this nihilistic approach of thinking, resting in the recognition of our relative insignificance, then yes, we can often feel exceptionally small.
When in actuality, the pale blue dot in space signifies Earth, our precious home in the universe. Everything we know, everything we need, everything we love, everything we hold near and dear to our hearts’, rests upon that small little speck in the cosmic dark.
As such, we as humans, can truly be someone’s “world,” someone’s reason to carry on, someone’s friend, someone’s something. Our entire relational world can be encapsulated in that one dot — meaning that, that dot’s significance is a lot larger than its appearance would originally suggest.
Over the last few years, social media, and the internet at large, have become our planners, organizers, and even our hallmark greeting cards. Birthday reminders on Facebook, for example, will always prompt you to remember someone, whether it was a casual friendship that evolved with a coworker, a friend you parted ways with in high school, or the relative that lives in another country — we are constantly flooded with banners to remember someone.
But in practice, very few people maintain the bonds that once meant something to them.
Literature suggests that “Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to our health as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day. The problem of loneliness is particularly acute among seniors, especially during holidays. Additionally, two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated.”
Based upon these statistics, I wonder, have we simultaneously taken one step backward and taken one step forward in terms of our relationships and social interactions with others?
In this context, I often think of my beloved grandmother, an amazing soul who lived through a very different generation and culture. She lived through Parkinson’s disease, alone in a different country, for twenty-two years. She was bound to a wheelchair for the last eleven years of her life. She had a handful of caretakers and my mom would visit her every few months, but I often think of how lonely she must have felt.
She did not know how to use social media, but she did have a few phonebooks. It was filled with the telephone numbers of all her friends and colleagues over the course of her life. It even had little notes about address updates and any other important changes. Although the books’ pages were tainted and smudged, it still held more mementos and thoughtful connections than many of our social media feeds.
I always noticed her pick up these phonebooks when she was feeling good after taking her medication. She would call her friends and talk to them for hours. She did not let her disability stop her from connecting with others. Those deep, meaningful connections were not only skin deep, but rather they were the elixir she so very much needed to make it through her day.
The guilt racks my heart into two when I ponder whether or not I did enough for my grandmother, to make her feel connected and heard when I was across the other end of the globe. After my grandfather passed away, she often feared that she would be forgotten, given the distance between us. I always tried to reassure her that she wouldn’t.
It has nearly been year one year since her passing. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about her. And I believe these fond memories about her have allowed us to remain connected, in a sense, for I still see her and speak with her in my dreams. In these dreams I have asked her that very same question, and where I apologized for my absence towards the end of her life and her spirit tenderly caressed my head, kissed my forehead, and told me that she could never possibly be mad at me. That dream alone gives me great solace. I have also dreamt that she randomly was present in my current apartment, laughing and full of joy. I so desperately wish she could truly visit me there.
In another example, the caretakers who took care of my grandmother, with whom I built a very special type of relationship with, harbored a similar fear of being forgotten, as their tenure in our household ended with the passing of my grandmother. One of them hugged me tight when we last parted after her funeral, “Please don’t forget me. I won’t forget you.” If only they knew that I would never forget the affection they showed me, or them for that matter. One of them still texts me every now and then, using the same endearing words that she heard my grandmother say to me.
Two people can be from such different walks of life, but human affection is blind to those barriers.
And when I think about romantic partners who separate on rather amicable terms, in relation to my own experiences and those of others, I have often heard the question: will they forget about me? After all, no one wants to be forgotten. This seems to be a universal fear amongst many.
For as you can see, connections of all kinds manifest within our lives in so many unique ways, and the fear of losing them is always present on some level.
The human desire for remembrance is further illustrated by the notion that when someone thinks of us, we feel like we matter and belong. We feel as if we are seen, heard, and valued.
In this context, and after much sober contemplation, I am reminded about how significant our individual footprints truly are.
If you ever feel forgotten, lost, and confused in this globalized synchrony of social mobility, always remember how much your individual dot matters. Your dot affects another person’s dot and so on. We are all connected at the end of the day and that should mean something to you.
Therefore, go out and make someone else’s dot a little more meaningful. Do not wait until birthdays and other holidays. Be bold. Reach out to people you love and care about right now. Have a conversation and see where it takes you. Share something that you have never shared with them before. Tell them what reminds you of them throughout your day. Meet up. Talk on the phone, text, whatever communication method feels right.
Life doesn’t happen in the past or the future, it happens now, right in front of you.
Before I came to where I am now, life plans were going to take me to Boston. In the search for roommates, I got acquainted with an amazing person who I still talk to frequently. We didn’t end up becoming roommates due to life trajectories that pulled us in different ways, but through conversations that started out with scouting for apartments, we built a connection that brought us closer. She even took the time to edit this very article.
A few weeks ago, I spontaneously received a package. Inside the package, there was a book, with a very sweet note. It was from a dear friend who lives in Canada, with whom I actually went to high school with. We weren’t close in high school, but through shared feelings and passions, we created a strong friendship over the last few years. That book holds so much value to me, because it signifies the spontaneous and most unexpected of connections.
Letters are fun too. I was that kid on the playground that wrote “plane letters.” To this day, I have all of them saved and keep them in a special box. In high school, one of my best friends, wrote random notes in my notebook during lab, I saved those “letters,” as well. One of my dearest friends who lives in Germany, and whom I met in a Model United Nations conference in Berlin, every now and then, sends me handwritten letters and post cards across the Atlantic. We talk regularly, but even amidst the presence of our virtual communication, we both agree that old-fashioned gestures carry so much value.
My entire life as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) has meant that I had to part ways with people and places way too many times. The goodbyes never get easier, but I part ways knowing that physical proximity never stops the truest of connections. These connections have become my portable home, replicating the structure, solace, and serenity that physical homes provide us with.
The immense power of human communication will always transcend all other forces that aim to limit its significance. Even in the presence of the notion that we like the “pale blue dot.” We might be small in the grand scheme of things, but we hold a big place in our relational world.
That is why it is pertinent that we remind ourselves to remember those dots who add value to our lives, in one way or another; for as relationship psychotherapist, Ether Perel, has said that the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives — I have always believed this to be the core, binding truth of the human experience.
Relationships provide us with vitality and meaning. The absence of a strong relational world will undoubtedly result in loneliness, so go out there and create new connections, and take care of your existing ones. The desire for human connection is even greater in this pandemic, where we are cooped up in our little bubbles. But this new reality also provides us with the opportunity to be creative in the ways we show up for others.
At the end of the day, remember that here is a light within us that sparks up the cosmic dark. A light that looks like a dot, that can literally be spotted from 3.7 billion miles away.