Forty days and twelve hours ago, our group had our last meeting in Princeton, NJ. We were told to be ready to leave at 7am the next day to begin our journey to Bolivia. Five days had gone by so quickly in a whirlwind of activities, lectures and exercises, and it was difficult to believe that the time had almost come. I hardly slept that night and spent most of the early hours of the morning hectically packing and repacking my bags to ensure that everything was as neat and compact as it possibly could be. I sent one last message to my mum telling her that this would effectively be my last communication with her until the end of our wifi fast in four weeks, and subsequently dozed off.
At 6:15am, my alarm clock detonated with all the finesse of an exploding hand grenade, viciously reeking havoc on my bedside table. It was time. Raucous pre-dawn wake-ups, mustering under an either blistering or frigid sun, and non-existent cell phone service were far from what I envisioned for my first year of university, but this was what I had signed up for in applying for Bridge Year Bolivia. All of the difficult encounters to come would be character building, and this is exactly what I had hoped the trip would entail. I decided to undertake this mission of sorts in part to better understand the world around me, which is an amazing, vast expanse of people and experiences, yet it is laced with sadness: for example, in walking through the streets of La Paz or Cochabamba, it is not uncommon to see beggars with missing limbs unable to fix their situation or to live next to a stray dog who has never felt any warmth from anything or anyone apart from the sun. When suddenly faced with these inescapable situations, it is impossible not to reflect upon your own conditions and the way in which we live our lives nowadays.
In our first week here, life at the orientation site was a beautiful and generous introduction to our new surroundings. We woke up to the birds singing and the sun shining through the rafters in the ceiling, and, some nights, we stayed awake through the darkness talking about our normal lives and getting to know one another in a frenzy of spontaneous games and conversations. All of my group comes from dispersed and diverse cities around America and, although we had just met, we quickly learned about each other’s idiosyncrasies and communicate as if we had been life long friends. We laughed over our shared struggles with the altitude, whilst wasting no time in eating all of the chocolate that the instructors had provided us. We compared our familial lives and talked of our intentions for this next year as well as our aspirations for life at university. We shared fears and spoke more candidly within this group of relative strangers than we had with those who have been around us since birth. Although this trip is frightening at times, it also feels remarkably gratifying because every second is full of doing, thinking, and bonding through shared experiences. We are actively engaging with our lives and, for me, it goes to show that my newfound friendships here serve as a stark reminder that the most fulfilling relationships are wrought from walking shared paths, not shared text messages.
My raw experience here has made me question the collateral damage caused from having grown up communicating in a virtual world. Disappearing Snapchat lingo peppered with OMGs, IDKs, and IDCs is impulsive and thoughtless. Cell phones are cradled like infants and conversations are reduced to trite acronyms and emoji emotions. Has a buzzing, blinking device meant to keep us connected actually diminished our ability to engage with one another?
When virtual interactions replace physical ones, it follows that people may struggle with meaningful relationships. Having ended the wifi fast a week ago, a quick Internet search (irony noted) reveals that my generation has higher rates of depression and loneliness than ever before and, although we perform effectively in competitive environments, we are increasingly emotionally fragile. Empty relationships based on empty words create a fleeting reality that disappears with each swipe of the screen.
Before I set out on this adventure, I remember rummaging through my grandfather’s Marine Corps trunk, and I came across heartfelt letters he received from friends with whom he served. They vividly captured shared moments that were anything but ephemeral. They are like the handwritten letters I am starting to trade with my friends back home that have proven to be an opportunity for genuine reflection. Now conscious of the psychological safety net of my screen, I am choosing instead to embrace personal debate, love, hate, desire, anger, laughter – emotions that stimulate and mold me, make me real.
While I am not going to become a virtual monk, I do strive for more authentic and real communication. I cannot help but wonder though:
Is there an emoji for that?