Welcome Back, Paul. (An Open Letter)

Recently, Paul Miller returned to the internet after a year offline.

Paul,

Thank you for sharing your experiences and feeling about your year offline. It resonates deeply with me. I too have experimented with being offline–being about the same age as you, I’ve had this secondary life since I was eleven or so. One of the things I find most interesting is that as creative, intelligent, depressive people, we desire so much. We desire information. We desire truth. We desire connection: perhaps the greatest attraction of the internet.

Ironically, I feel connected to your story and your experiences because they were brought to my attention by the internet. I’m not writing this to you in a letter, by hand. I’m posting it on a public blog.

I spent large swathes of 2011 and 2012 avoiding or simply being unable to connect to the web. I traveled a lot, I wrote a lot (yet another half-completed novel, the year I won NaNoWriMo, which I still intend to–someday–get back to). I met a lot of people. I tried some new stuff.

But overall, nothing was really that different from what it is now. Except that I didn’t have any excuse for my laziness. I couldn’t say, “oh, I meant to finish that book, but got distracted by blogs.” “I’ll work on that painting after I look at some inspiring photos online.” “I can’t work out now, I need to watch these technique videos.” “I’ll go outside and take photos of nature as soon as I’m done looking at these lolcats.”

I wasn’t doing any of those things–wasn’t getting distracted by the internet’s myriad time-sucks. And wasn’t making or doing the stuff I always think I’m going to do, either.

I did spend a lot of time around real people, which is good–sometimes. But others–oftentimes, in fact–it can be more draining. I try to be open and giving of my time. Some folks take that as an opportunity to tell me their life’s story. Some folks go further, and take advantage of good-will, as it pleases them.

Is this because good-will is rare? That people don’t know how to respond when someone is generous with their time and ability? It seems as though we’ve lost track of what it is to act with grace and good-heartedness, and how to respond to such actions. Manners are rare, but we’ve been saying that for decades, right?

And it seems, these days, we are so timid, afraid to act at all. I’ve seen people collapse in hot weather, while others walk idly by, or stand frozen, and have been the one to run for help, or help them up myself. When did we become so afraid of acting? When did we get so used to watching, and not doing?

Are we a nation of self-serving individuals, instead of the kind and generous Samaritans we would like ourselves to be? Are we a world of people that are too wrapped up with our specific experience? Do we, as people, lack empathy?

There aren’t easy answers. The questions are even more complicated than what I’ve asked–take socio-economic factors into account, take independent histories, take outliers–your mileage will vary.

My point, really, was that it’s worth it, for all of us, to take some time offline, when we can. Maybe not a week, a month, or a year–but a day? An hour or three? The internet is a real place, a whole world inside our own, and we are real people inside of it. But there are real folks living next door, down the road, across the country, who we could differently interact with in-person.

Honesty seems to come more easily in the written word, or with the barrier of distance. How many people have opted to end a relationship via phone, Skype, email, or text, rather than face-to-face? My last relationship ended face-to-face, and I credit my ex with having the humanity to choose that route. Especially considering, we met online.

I’m grateful, in a way, that the internet has finally been accepted and legitimized by most of society, considering how long I’ve been here, talking with and connecting to strangers around the world. I’ve formed amazing friendships and relationships over the last ten years, through this medium.

But it’s important to meet people offline, too. I met one of my best friends while traveling last year. She and I bonded over internet memes, television shows, and gaming culture. But we also bonded because we stayed up for hours on end, talking in swampy heat, about anything or nothing. We live a thousand miles apart, but we still talk on a regular basis.

There is truth, information, and connection to be found everywhere. In words written millennia ago. In a Google hangout. In a conversation at a bus stop. In a blog post.

So thank you, Paul, for your experiment, and for your honesty about what you experienced. It’s always good to feel connected. Online or off.

Sincerely,

Sarah Haynes

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