Aging gracefully

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There is no doubt that electronic communication has made our lives easier in many ways. Whether this constitutes an improvement is another question entirely.

We are all grateful for the machines that make it possible for us to view news from all over the globe, send e-mail messages to loved ones far away and get emergency telephone messages even when we are out grocery shopping. But how many of us find ourselves mindlessly channel surfing in front of the television set or hooked on Internet communication?

What happens when we begin to think of the characters in a soap opera as we do family members, or feel that when we miss our regular morning TV or radio talk show we’ve somehow lost touch with a true friend?

Rituals have always been part of human life. Repeating activities over and over because they have symbolic meaning is part of what makes us human beings.

As cultural rituals developed over millennia have been abandoned, those in the profit-driven communications industry have been all too ready to hand us synthetic replacements for them. Older adults who have outlived many of their friends and relatives are especially susceptible to their sales pitches.

These same companies have spent millions of dollars researching what will make people watch their show or log on to their Web site, so it should come as no surprise that many people begin to live lives almost entirely within the confines of their virtual world.

Education and privilege are no guard against this addiction. Those who are more affluent can afford more sophisticated toys as well as the education to learn how to use them.

But the meaninglessness at the core of many virtual rituals is profound. The more time and energy we spend on these activities (more accurately inactivities), the more real they become to us. They soothe us and lull our fears about the rapidity of change and the level of uncertainty in this world.

We can depend on these electronic companions not to deviate or challenge us in the way a real person or activity would. We can also cut off the “relationship” whenever we want to without any explanation, just by severing the connection.

This rut becomes a place in which we feel safe. Especially for those of us who suffer physical limitations, we can come up with all kinds of excuses not to do much of anything else.

If you’re thinking “I know someone like that, but it isn’t me,” here’s a way to find out how dependent you are on virtual rituals.

Challenge yourself this summer. For one week, turn off your television. Use the Internet for essentials only, such as paying bills. When you’re tempted to log on to a chat room, call an old friend you’ve lost touch with or take a walk. Turn off the car radio or Walkman or iPod and sing or hum an oldie or an operatic aria as you motor or walk along.

Look for ways to create rituals with real meaning in your life. Volunteer with youth, plant a garden in memory of an old friend, start a book club with others who don’t want to limit themselves to virtual reality.

Human beings are social animals, and we wither spiritually without the society of others we care about. Overreliance on virtual relationships maintained through electronic media can only hasten our spiritual demise.

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