EDITORIAL: Please don’t stand so close to me.

by Aug 9, 2018OPINIONS





We are all wondering what happened to our world. On a planet that is more connected than ever before, we deal daily with the aftermath of actions taken because members of our society feel isolated, segregated, and alone. Isolation is a breeding ground for sociopathic behavior, addiction, and criminal activity.

We are preoccupied with personal space, and the definition of that personal space has evolved into whether you are close enough to me to read what is displayed on my smartphone. Instead of families sitting down to meals together to talk about their lives and catching up on events of the day, we are sitting silently at tables with the soft glow of the smartphone reflecting on our faces – all senses focused on the messages it delivers (if we even gather together for a meal at all).

It is unusual to participate in a face-to-face meeting with anyone for any reason without the interruption of a beep, buzz, or hum of a digital device going off. And, when our smartphones sound the alarm, our brain has been conditioned to respond. I have seen friends and acquaintances get physically agitated when not able to immediately respond to the commanding call of a smartphone. It is like an itch that they can’t scratch. The in-person conversation becomes secondary, and they will be distracted from our talk until they can see what their smartphone wanted.

During a conversation, visual cues are just as important as the speech that we use. We familiarize ourselves with each other through all five senses. When we limit our interaction to just text or voice (or pre-recorded video), we have isolated ourselves from the experience of personal contact. As lifelike as smart and digital technology has become, it cannot create or maintain a true relationship. Emojis are a digital product of the need to communicate feelings in addition to thoughts.

We, as a society, bear the responsibility for the change we want. “Want” has become “need” in this environment of rising crime rates, drug addiction, and medical crisis born from the excessive lifestyles that isolation grows. Rehab centers, Jenny Craig, AA, prison, and other programs are Band-Aids toward the real goal, which is reinventing a society where we care about people beyond a social media “like.”

Caring for people requires contact and intimacy. I care about the world, but not as much as I care about my community. I care about the community, but not as much as I care about my friends. I care about my friends, but not as much and not in the same way as I care about my family. Even in families, isolation occurs. How many times are we greeted with news of a mass killing at a school or church, and the media goes to the killer’s family and friends to hear that they are “shocked and horrified” that the killer has done such a thing because they saw him as a “good, quiet kid who never bothered anybody”? Creating and maintaining relationships takes time and effort, even with family members. Due to an apathetic mentality, we become a part of creating an environment that breeds not only more apathy but, eventually, hatred.

As Cherokees and “mountain people,” we tend to be “set in our ways.” If we have done things a certain way for a long time or it is a passed-down tradition, we are not inclined to do it a different way. We are used to having community functions on the Boundary. From Stomp to Indian Dinner Fundraiser to Cherokee Indian Fair, we’ve created ways to be an intimate part of the community. But, many of our young people are not getting the family leadership required to engage them in a personal way. I think Cherokee does a better job than most communities because of our tribal culture, but outside influences are strong against today’s youth. Letting kids go off and find their path without sound guidance will and does, in many cases, lead to isolation, apathy, and hatred.

I don’t like to be told that I am part of the problem, but I am. In my neighborhood, I tend to keep to myself. I only interact with neighbors as much as is necessary to deal with a property issue, or to give a quick greeting. I have lived in my neighborhood for over 30 years. Creating and maintaining a personal relationship can be costly and messy. More than clicking a button, true friendships and relationships don’t end with an electronic command to “unfriend.” There might be painful words and situations. Hateful or pleading words and actions may take place. Time and effort are required to build a neighborhood or community. Giving away a certain amount of self is required to have a true relationship.

Social media has a place in current society, but I am not sure that we intended it to take the place of true, personal relationship. Many of my coworkers have more interaction with their fellow workers than they have with some of their family members at home. I maintain a lifeline for a relationship with some of my family members via text or a Facebook page because that is the only place I see them or communicate with them. And, I am a middle-aged man. If you are a parent or grandparent, take special note the next time you are spending time with family at how much time those around you are checking their smartphones. Watch the ones who stand to the side of a group in conversation, with head bowed to stare at a small screen and fingers flying across a keyboard screen, not engaging in the flesh and blood people within their personal space.

The Digital Age has brought us many advances. We do things faster. We are more informed. But, I think one of the unexpected drawbacks and declines is that the technology has isolated many of us to the point of being unhealthy psychologically. We make friends with images on a screen with no idea as to whether the person we are communicating with is really who they say they are, or if they are real people at all. Artificial Intelligence software has gotten to the level of development that you may only be building a relationship with a machine. That is one of the reasons that digital relationships isolate people.

We can’t allow smart technology to continue to replace true relationship and personal, physical interaction. We must reverse the course we have set ourselves on regarding technology being the primary way we relate to each other. In the “old days,” people looked for an opportunity to commune. For many, it was church gatherings, where, at least once a week, you came together and personally interacted with other members of your community. Today, church attendance is on the decline, and the memberships are mostly middle-aged (or older) people. The future of the church, the children, and the youth are some of the least attending age groups.

Find ways for you and your family to engage in community functions together. Turn off your phones during meals and intentionally have family time that does not include using digital technology. Make it a point to be active in your community clubs, social and craft groups. Volunteer at a nursing home or a Hospice. If you are an animal lover, contribute time to a shelter or farm because there will be others there with a similar interest. For me, a simple start is getting out of my house and having a conversation with my next-door neighbor. The final answer to the drug epidemics, crime waves, and mental illness are not Narcan, rehabs, prisons, and institutions. All those tools are needed, but they are for after-the-fact. They are the Band-Aide after the damage has been done. All of us must change our culture together, so the conditions that breed the negative behavior are reduced or no longer exist.