Students Are Connected and More Alone Than Ever

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Even when we’re alone, we’re not really alone. Our technologies now allow us to be a part of the crowd—even when we’re sitting in the solitude of our quiet dorm room or apartment. Cell phones and smart phones allow us to make calls, send texts, and chat face-to-face with anyone, from anywhere, at any point in time—day or night. We have been given the technology to take our crowds with us wherever we go. We don’t have to be alone. And we can actually choose who we want to be with—even when there are others around. We can actually multiply the crowds in our world by combining the real and the virtual.

Social media has also created the capacity for us to tap into near limitless crowds—where we can watch from the shoreline, slowly wade into the shallows, or plunge ourselves into the deep end of the social media abyss. The time lines and news feeds of these places run like a New York stock ticker—constantly updating with people’s new posts and pictures.

But have you ever stopped to consider why you feel so tied to the crowd? Why you feel drawn to the masses? Have you ever stopped to figure out what’s behind your need to be connected at virtually every waking minute of your day? If not, you may be surprised.

A Fear of Being Alone

One of the primary reasons we are attracted to crowds is because we fear being alone. We fear what people might think of us if we’re seen alone. But even more, we fear what we might encounter if we are alone for any length of time at all.

We fear the solitude. Most of us don’t like the idea of being alone. Not even for a short period of time. Being alone produces within us feelings of being lonely. Instead of seeing solitude as a place to be recharged and refocused we more often struggle with feelings of anxiety over when it will end—so we can return to the crowds. We don’t know what to do with ourselves in solitude. It feels unproductive and lonesome—and in many ways vulnerably exposed.

We fear the silence. In solitude we often encounter silence as well. The solitude and silence hit us like a one-two punch, striking sharp contrast to the crowds and noise that so often fill our days. Silence, on top of the challenge of solitude, can feel like a heavy, wet blanket to the person who struggles to know how to exist in a setting like this. Not having anyone to be with or talk to can make us feel trapped and terrified. In silence, we are left to ourselves, and whatever lies within. And for most of us, not knowing what exactly awaits us within, we choose the comfort and familiarity of crowds and noise.

We fear encountering our true self—and not liking it. When stripped of the crowds that we often surround ourselves with, we can tend to find a person that we know not. When others constantly surround us, it becomes all too easy to take on, at least in part, the collective identity of the masses. And we know that when we do this, when we look and sound like those around us, we are more likely to find acceptance. But when we remove the crowds, and their far-reaching influence, we rarely know what exactly we’ll find. In fact, one of the reasons I believe we are attracted to the masses is because we don’t like who we are apart from them.

We fear finding God. Most of us struggle to believe that we are fully loved and accepted by God—just as we are. We know that we’re not perfect, and have done some things that we’d rather not have to think about, so the idea of being alone and possibly having to confront these things—or even worse, having God confront us with these things—can be petrifying. On one hand, we’ve always longed for a close, intimate relationship with the One True God. But on the other hand, knowing our own spiritual shortcomings, we’ve never wanted to get too close out of a fear of what we might learn—about ourselves and/or God.

We fear not finding God. The only thing potentially more horrifying than encountering God in our solitude is not finding him there. I think most of us are content to live with the hope, or belief, that in the stillness we will find God. But if we’re honest, I don’t know that most of us want to put that to the test. What would happen if we actually entered into solitude in search of God and didn’t find him there? What would that do to our faith? Crowds definitely present themselves as the safer, more comfortable alternative to solitude and being alone.

A Hidden Identity

In crowds, we are sufficiently able to fit in and fly under the radar. We are able to wear masks and disguises and be whoever we want to be—or whoever we think others want us to be. Crowds often afford us the opportunity to be different things to different people simply because we can.

In crowds, we have more anonymity, which allows us not to have to make clear-cut decisions about what we believe and how we’re going to live out those beliefs. In crowds, we simply follow the lead and example of the crowd, and our beliefs and decisions are made for us. In crowds, we can hide who we really are, from ourselves and from others. And sometimes living a facade is easier, or more exciting, than living the life that God has given us to live.

Group Think

Crowds allow us freedom from having to think for ourselves—and risk thinking something that goes against the cultural grain. When we’re a part of the masses it becomes easier to simply put our finger to the wind and understand what direction popular thought appears to be moving—and then to go in that direction. In many respects, crowds allow us to function on autopilot. We know that we’re charting the right course simply by looking around and making sure that we’re still with the crowd. This allows us freedom from having to struggle through issues that we are faced with every day.

A Different Kind of World

What we may or may not realize is that this crowded world in which we live and move and have our being is not conducive to the spiritual life. Dutch-born Catholic priest, professor, and author Henri Nouwen wrote, “Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul.”

The way of the crowd is rarely the way of Christ. It’s not that the crowd is always doing things that are inherently wrong or blatantly disruptive to the With-God life, but our Adversary has a way of utilizing the crowd, and our fixation upon it, to misguide us just enough to where we likely aren’t aware of what we’re doing or where we’re going.

God wants this life to count. We should want this life to count as well. But that means that we cannot operate on autopilot. We cannot allow crowds to be our moral compass. We cannot allow the current direction of the masses to be what defines our priorities in life. The crowds cannot be this for us—because they rarely ever reflect the heartbeat of God. And even in those rare instances when they do, God still wants us to look to him, over and above any crowd.

What Are We Missing?

Do we see, understand, or even care what’s happening here? The crowds that we incessantly surround ourselves with are distracting us from the With-God life.

Henri once wrote:

Our calendars are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects. There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying, or doing.

We have become the sheep without a shepherd that Jesus laments over when he observes the crowds and huddled masses.

This isn’t the kind of With-God life that God desires for us. And I can assure you that you will not experience this kind of life by following the crowds. In fact, in order to find God, in order to experience him in ways that you’ve likely never experienced him before, you will need to be willing to leave the masses behind and intentionally seek out solitude.

If you enjoyed this entry, you’ll find Noise. Hurry. Crowds: On Creating Space for God Admidst the Chaos of Campus Culture by Guy Chmieleski to be challenging and liberating. Today’s student is living a life that is distracted by the chaos of campus and culture – a life where they often struggle to discern or experience the activity of God in their midst. It’s not that He’s absent, but more so that the volume, pace, and context of their life leaves little if any room to be able to experience the presence, purpose, and peaceful existence that we have available in Jesus Christ. This book will help students wade through the chaos and move into experiencing God in a more satisfying way. Get your copy in our store here.

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Dr. Guy Chmieleski serves as the Campus Pastor and Dean of Campus Ministries at Friends University. He is also the author of several Seedbed books, Shaping Their Future and Campus Gods and Noise. Hurry. Crowds. He is also the founder of FaithONCampus.com, a popular blog focused on better equipping mentors of college students. He has earned a Master of Arts in Ministry from Palm Beach Atlantic University and a Doctorate of Ministry with an emphasis in Spiritual Formation and Leadership Development from George Fox Evangelical Seminary.

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