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Is it really getting harder and harder to get along with other humans? Yes, it is.

“Pastor Mike, will you pray for me? I’m lonely. Every time I start to get close to someone it turns toxic.“

I have heard versions of this many times over the last few years and the frequency of these types of comments is increasing. With 5 kids I decided to take some time to research this social loneliness. Here is what I found:

Your brain is wired to adapt, and the Internet is rewiring your brain.

Remember neuroplasticity from that undergrad psychology class? It’s the ability of the brain to change and adapt. When you are young your brain is amazing at this. Think of an immigrant family moving to the United States. In just a few years a child, without much intentional effort, can speak and sound just like anyone else who grew up here. With adults… not so much. After years of classes and effort you can still identify the parent who migrated here. Adult brains can’t adapt as quickly and fully as young ones. This isn’t good or bad. It just is. Either could be advantageous depending on the situation.

Your brain is being rewired to only give attention to things it likes most.

Take that young highly adaptable brain and give it a cell phone. As those young minds thumb through photos, YouTube videos, social media, and blogs they are being trained to leave a page, post, or video as soon as they aren’t interested and the more they do this the more they are fed exactly what they prefer. It’s basic digital marketing. Hours of doing this is wiring the brain of young children to lose the ability to coexist with things that aren’t exactly what they like. Ironically, those of us that didn’t get the Internet in our hands until we were adults are less affected precisely because our brains can’t adapt as easily. The now young adults? They were raised in the Wild West of the Internet Age. Their brains work differently.

The world of utopian digital pleasure produces dystopian realities. 

Think about it. Not only with our kids, but we also are being trained to leave as soon as we come across something we even mildly disagree with. These digitally perfected echo chambers of our ideal perspectives are shaping our brains, especially in our kids. We are losing the ability to live alongside people that aren’t EXACTLY what we prefer. It’s becoming true that kids can’t emotionally handle ideas that they don’t like, and therefore, environments and relationships that make them uncomfortable. They don’t practice coexisting with other ideas. They practice unfollowing, deleting, or swiping away from them. In the real world you can’t instantly exit a webpage or go to someone else’s post or unfollow someone nearly as easily.

Real humans are becoming too complex for us to handle.

This brings us to relationships today. You aren’t wrong. You do feel trapped and anxious when there is no way to easily exit or swipe away from something you dislike.  People are complex and you do feel like you can’t emotionally handle the differences. Your threshold for handling coexisting wills is decreasing. In other words, what feels toxic is increasing in every real-world experience. Friendships, dating relationships, even church. It’s much easier for you to look at porn than have a real complex relationship, to chat in digital rooms where you can bounce as soon as you are offended, to go to an online church where you only have to listen to the parts you like. The anxiety of the real and complex is becoming too much for you to handle. This is one of the reasons (there are others*) why you are lonely and you find everything and everyone toxic. Therefore, everything is becoming more polarized as we lose the ability to coexist and emotional fortitude to handle different people and ideas.

What do we do to restore the emotional fortitude required to have relationships with other actual humans?

Like working out an atrophied muscle, you must practice pushing into the discomfort of learning to hear other people and other ideas without constantly “swiping,” or running away. You must learn to be okay with someone who doesn’t see the world the same as you. You must learn to look people in the eye. Hold a hand. Have a debate. Compare ideas and work through them together. I am not asking you to join a gang or terrorist group, but commit to being in a group of people even when they think a little differently, and possibly even offend you. Resist the swipe. Join a chess club, get into a spin class, read a book with others, and debate it. Stop watching church online and show up. When someone says something that bothers you, don’t run away right away. Stick it out. Hear them out. Grow your ability to handle others. You might just find a best friend, maybe even your future spouse. If you marry them, you will need the ability to fight over the toilet seat being up or down. The effort and discomfort is worth the reward of real, committed relationship.