Saturday, July 31, 2010

Online Friendships: Real Connections or Digital Farce?

For well over a decade now, the internet has provided many services. Starting as the largest database of every possible topic of inquiry imagined, the internet helped students research papers and professionals find answers to various questions. Now, the internet has evolved to completing daily tasks like shopping and paying bills, viewing and downloading media, and catching up on news all over the world. Nowadays, however, its purpose has superseded what may have been its original vision as the information super highway. It has become the largest source of interpersonal exchanges between friends, families, co-workers, business prospects, romantic prospects, and other random meetings throughout our daily internet activities. Surpassing the telephone and what is popularly coined now as Snail Mail, email, social networking sites, and messengers help to keep us connected.

Now for one who admittedly rarely gets out, a perpetual homebody, the internet has become my extension to much of the outside world. As local, real-life friendships from school and old jobs run dry, despite promises of gatherings and phone calls, I find myself making more friends online, friends who, oddly, seem more reliable than those I see face to face. Which brings me to this question: Can real friendships and relationships be forged through the electrical fog of the internet?

However, to answer this question, one must define friendship. Unfortunately such a term is subjective to each and every one of us. To some, friendship is the person who knows everything about you, the one you can tell anything to, someone you see nearly every day and keep in constant contact with. To others, friendship is simply knowing that the parties of the relationship are there when you need them, despite limited exchanges and minimal contact. They may not know everything about you and you may only speak a few times a year, but you know that when you need to talk, they'll pick up the phone. And for some, like my nephew, friendship simply means any individual who is not an enemy: 'if you're not cruel and give me no reason to dislike you, then we're friends'.

For me, to varying degrees all of these apply, and all of them are manifested in my internet connections, save one important detail: most of us have never met face to face. I have friends I've met on message boards of mutual interests, friends I've met through QR's YouTube project, and friends I've met through social networking sites. Some I've known for nearly 8 years, some I would call my best friends, without hesitation, one even flew from Spain and stayed at my house with me while on vacation. But when I tell people my friends are on the internet, most scoff or give a politely awkward "oh, that's cool". The common sentiment of the internet is that it's not real, and most people treat it as such.

It's duly noted that people do not act on the internet as they do in real life. Some are ruder, more outspoken, more flirtatious, more of whatever they're not in their daily lives. Some people create an entirely new persona online, believing there are no actual consequences, like the internet is some far-removed fantasy land where you can be whatever you want and at the end of the day, shut it down and delete any trace of your existence if you wish to. In maintaining such a mentality, more people feel less connected to the individuals on the other side of the wire, forgetting there are real people sitting in front of the other computer, and social niceties are no longer required. People make superficial friendships and following the smallest infarction, at the click of the mouse can remove that individual from their lives. And, given a few days to refresh, will re-add that friend back into their lives until the next minor faux pas.

Had we a button to delete every annoying individual from our real daily lives, I imagine hardly any effort would be made at all to construct relationships or friendships, to learn tolerance and patience with one another, to learn to coexist as we must on this rock. So why do we engage in the simplicity of deleting real individuals in a virtual world like we're killing off one of our Sims characters? Perhaps this attitude of the internet is why some people refuse to emotionally invest in online friendships and relationships with each other. Perhaps they're concerned about making connections with a fantasy land of characters where no one is what they seem, or in a land where nothing seems tangible because these "friends" live half a world away where you'll never see them face to face.

I invest. I care about the people I connect with online, albeit sometimes too easily, sometimes the relationships mean more to me than to the other person, and they walk away without much consideration for anything else, but isn't that life? I mean granted I do believe most people give up on internet relations a lot faster than real-life ones because as I said, all it takes is turning off your computer, rather than shutting out a neighbor or a co-worker you face every day. However, there are people in our real lives who never return phone calls, who never reply to letters, who make plans and break them, or give hollowed promises and let them collapse. So why can't we care and connect from behind our keyboards?

I can't vouch for every negative experience anyone else has had with one idiotic ruse or another, I can only vouch for the valuable friends I've made, in spite of the callous cowardly posters that pop up everywhere else. I can vouch for the friends who send me gifts and cards, or the friends that saw me through the hardest time of my life; the friends that listen to me bitch and complain about whatever drama is going down, the friends that support and encourage me in whatever I'm doing; the friends who never judged me for what I am, or what I've been. I vouch for the friend who was willing to send me money when times were tough, even though she hadn't enough for herself, and I vouch for the friends that I know will continue to be there for me, even though none of us, save one, have ever met, and even though most of us never will. Some of us talk every day, even if they're small messages on Facebook or message boards. Some of us only talk once a month or less. But we're still friends. From Kentucky to Florida, from New England to the old one, from Ireland to Spain, from Morocco to Jordan, I'm quite fortunate in my international bounty of friends.

Thanks guys.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Ultimate Solution?

So I think I've found the answer to part, if not all of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Lying in bed awake far later than I ever imagined I could be at this stage, the one fail-safe solution dropped on my head like an anvil. Now for my more religious friends, this could be a less than favorable end so I caution you about the upcoming offense. To end the fight, one must simply remove the problem: blow up the holy land. Now, not being much of a religion buff, I am vaguely aware of the significance of this land to either side of the argument, and somewhat understand why some, in reading my suggestion, might be angered. I do know it holds great importance to both the Jews and the Muslims, as well as the Christians. However, much like a frustrated mother who rips a toy from her bickering children, one must remove the problem in order to restore peace, if only for the sake of the mother's aching head.

But, while I was tossing these thoughts and revelations around in my head, it occurred to me just why this land is so crucial to the parties involved. It is not simply about the religiously historic events that took place there, but what that land represents to people. For years religions have claimed this place, that item, this book as holy, as revered, as the word of God and a map for a better life. These relics offer the physical, tangible evidence that one needs in order to provide to them a deeper connection to their roots, to solidify the origins of their religions, and to reinforce their faith in their beliefs. Few people if any can go on pure blind faith alone, they need something to see, something to touch, something to tell them that what their hearts feel actually exists, that what their minds tell them actually happened.

Now, whether or not such events occurred, the ultimate question is are these land masses worth dying for? Are they worth killing for? Is one's need for that concrete evidence so dire that it is justifiable to wipe out an entire nation of people to have unmitigated access to your holy site? Is it worth giving your own life in a suicide bombing attack to prove just how dedicated you are to obtaining rights over that site? I would imagine that God, not only weary of being called down on both sides of the argument, is greatly pained by the death and destruction that has followed what may have been to him insignificant events. A child was born, as we all are, a man ascended to heaven, as I believe most of us will, and suddenly a decades-long war of devastating proportions ensued with no foreseeable end in sight. Ironic, what some have regarded as holy have blatantly disregarded religious teachings of peace and have spilled innocent blood and soiled whatever reverie the land once held. Given the opportunity, God might reach down and simply smear the land off the face of the earth, if only to end this madness and save us from ourselves.

Religion is a belief in a higher being, a higher power, something left unexplained by any other means. It provides people more resilience in dark times, it increases the healing capabilities of the ill, it offers peace of mind to those fearing the afterlife and it motivates one to strive for goodness. It fosters a connection to something greater than oneself, through devotion, through prayer, through faith. However, that connection is not achieved through inanimate objects like metal, wood, veils, water, fossils, or papers. It's not achieved through geography; countries, buildings, sites. It's achieved through the strength of your own soul and your devotion to whatever belief system you follow. It doesn't matter where you pray, or what places you visit. It doesn't matter if you're in a church, a mosque, or in the middle of a swamp. It doesn't matter if you're where Jesus was born and where Mohammad ascended to Heaven or if you're standing in the middle of a Metallica concert. If you need God, he is there. If you need to talk to him, he'll listen no matter where you are, if you want to prove your loyalty, you prove it in everyday life with people who need you, not on an expensive and time-consuming trip to Jerusalem just to say, "Look Lord, here I am".

Places hijacked by a people so desperate to be closer to God, so incapable of reaching him on their own have poisoned humanity against each other. They have laid unprecedented importance on a chunk of dirt, they have killed for it, they have died for it, and all the while, I imagine, God looks down, saying "that is not what I meant at all, that is not it, at all".

Depression and Graduating in a Recession

The state of the economy is a forlorn one, and it's only expected to sink lower before we manage to kick hard enough to breach the surface of this pounding flood. We're falling and, being the very heart of the international circulatory system, we're pulling the rest of the world down with us. Businesses are closing, Space For Lease signs and empty lots in shopping centers have become as commonplace as food courts and directory maps. Houses are foreclosing, people are moving back in with their parents, parents are moving in with their kids. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment is at an average of 9.5%, but they don't figure in the people that are no longer receiving unemployment benefits, and job openings that would have received tens of applicants 3 years ago are now getting several hundred, in some cases over 1,000. In the midst of this crisis, rates of depression and suicidality have significantly increased, and with obviously good reason.

In addition to the sea of people out of work, a steady stream of job seekers are flowing in and the levees can barely hold. This is my generation, most fresh out of college, with expectations set impossibly high and promises burned into our minds that never allowed for a recession. Many of us recall those echoing voices of parents and mentors lamenting the benefits of college degrees: the doors that will open, the opportunities laid out before you, and "oh the places you'll go" as Dr. Seuss so eloquently wrote. But such is not our reality. We left the gates of our educational institutions and met a great brick wall. Only a select few make it through, over, or around.

I graduated in 2008 and found a job almost immediately. It wasn't a great paying job, but it was what I was groomed to expect with a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology, so I hadn't been aware of the sinking economy. By the time I left my job in early 2009, I began to feel the crunch. Sensing my opportunity, as many have by now, I decided to continue my education and obtain my Master's Degree. A few classes from graduating, I hear nothing but stories of people who can't find jobs once that nifty little piece of paper is in their hands, and I wonder where I will be. It's almost as if we are walking off our commencement stage and into a ravine. With student loans building up and no guarantee of a job or economic improvement looming in the future, I am petrified of what will come, and depressed by the options left.

Though employment is slim, there are jobs out there to be had, if one strikes HR the right way. But what has become a painful reality for the recently graduated is that ultimately, we are expected to take jobs below our education, our abilities, and more importantly, our desires. A far stretch from our parents' generation of taking "any job that pays the bills" and heavily-laden with a sense of entitlement, we long for mental stimulation worthy of that required in a university classroom, we want for that instant gratification of the hard work we invested at school, and we seek a job that makes us feel happy, useful, fulfilled. Nothing quite knocks you down to reality like not only applying for but fighting and praying to get a job that pays minimum wage with a Master's Degree nestled in your filing cabinet back home.

Does this make us spoiled? A bit, of course. Sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do, the bills need to be paid, the kids need to be fed, whatever your obligations may be. Sometimes you have to suck it up and play whatever crappy hand you're dealt. But are we necessarily to blame for our expectations? For a generation that was pounded with nothing but mind-numbing aphorisms attesting to the benefits of higher education and for children constantly prodded to follow their hearts and dreams, what did our predecessors think we would become when we were suddenly told "your degree is worthless", and "sorry, you dreamed too big". Spoiled, they call us. Though we were raised to want for more, a spoiled child sits back and expects the world to be handed to them, whereas a college student knows well enough their degree comes with blood, sweat, and many tears, so much that less than half the people who enter college finish. After four years of poring over books and ripping your hair out over exams, is it unrealistic to want for the luxury of a comfortable pleasant job?

What now seems like wasted time and wasted efforts throws one's ego down the pipes. It's a difficult blow, especially when the guy at Starbucks with little more than a GED is pulling in $15 an hour, and you were pulling in $11, and only because you went to college (otherwise it was $9). What we're now faced with is a lowly reality that can quickly pull you down, and you only fall farther because you were set up so high to begin with. After four hard years you thought you'd found the golden ticket, only to realize it was just a piece of stained foil. And it hurts. And it's terrifying.

However, perhaps the benefit that lies here in this recession, if we survive it, is that we will come out stronger on the other end. We will know what it is like to toil and struggle in the work force, to beat ourselves senseless with double shifts and multiple jobs. We will quickly learn the importance of a strong work ethic so to not lose that precious job, and we will find relentless determination in our long bouts of pavement pounding. We will learn patience, and we will learn personal strength. Granted, we have not yet reached the devastation of the epic Great Depression, but for a generation that had so much handed to it, this recession is still a tragic blow to the routine of the easy lives we once knew. We may find ourselves struggling with depression, with senses of failure, with letdowns and delayed dreams. But all we can hope for is that someday our investments will pay off sometime in the future, that the little slip of university paper will gain some value, and that we may not have sunk so low that we cannot be revived. Until then, it may be back to retail, fast food, babysitting, name tags and pimple faced supervisors, but manage a smile with the knowledge that you're working.