Editor’s Note: Award-winning journalist Lisa Ling is the host and executive producer of the CNN Original Series, “This is Life with Lisa Ling” which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT starting November 27. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like when less than an hour after I meet someone, a person divulges a trauma, or some deeply held secret.
The scene often goes like this: We sit across from one another and our eyes meet. Our breathing slows, deepens to an audible level and our limbs begin to fidget. And then the tears start to flow.
At that moment a bond develops between the two of us that is different from the ones I have even with my close friends or family members. But it is a human connection that is special and, at times, even sacred.
For nine seasons, these are the moments I’ve shared with people whose lives have become part of the documentary series, “This Is Life.” They could not be more different from one another, or from me, but they share in common being people I might never have gotten the opportunity to meet if it weren’t for our show.
I can recall them each so clearly: The mother who avoided coffee and alcohol all of her life in deference to her Mormon faith’s Word of Wisdom, but who like so many in her community, had become addicted to the opioids that her doctor had prescribed to her and so many others for pain.
The former Colorado prosecutor who decided to undergo psychedelic therapy for a severe mental health crisis that was triggered by a home invasion.
The group of Chicago teenagers who told me that they were all eight or nine years old when they saw someone get shot in their neighborhood for the first time.
The couple in their 70s who I met at a swinger convention who explained how essential trust was in their relationship for them to be at such a lascivious event.
The graduates of a fatherhood program in jail who attended a father-daughter dance inside the facility where they were incarcerated.
Over the course of nearly a decade, we have embedded and immersed ourselves in communities big and small, throughout almost all of the 50 states. In all of our shows, we have sought out a deeper understanding of who people are and why they might do or think the way they do. And as diverse as our seasons are topically, the thread that ties all of our stories together has been the uniqueness of the American experience.
But these days, I find myself asking: What does the uniqueness of the American experience even mean at a time when our nation is deeply divided and the very notion of who gets to be American is in question? We have emerged from a global pandemic psychologically battered and emotionally bruised. We have endured lockdowns, protests, insurrection, sky-high inflation. Add to those things media and social media that are literally pushing people in opposite directions and the question of what it means to be an American has taken on a somber urgency.
Now more than ever, we are glued to devices and following only those who espouse the same things that we do. We are finding ourselves in bubbles that are becoming increasingly difficult to penetrate.
In the push to personalize our social media feeds, many of us have boxed ourselves into ways of thinking that are intolerant of dissent.
Most of the time, we’re not even thinking for ourselves anymore. When big tech collects data on our viewing and buying habits and delivers information to us individually that algorithms determine we might want to see or consume, it shuts us off from other ways of thinking and extrospection. And because our devices have been designed to inundate our brains with information, we’ve become numb to things that might ordinarily cause us to feel. We are momentarily tantalized by clickbait, then we just swipe to the next thing. And the cycle repeats.
The risk in all of this is that we don’t take time to understand context or think critically, because we’re too busy scrolling aimlessly without time to reflect on what it all means. This cycle is a phenomenon our show has looked at in detail: People, predisposed to feelings of paranoia who have been pushed to the extremes by media that caters to their preferences, or the information they seek out.
What we have tried hard to do over the years is get to know people beyond the surface level—or the headlines. What do the lives of the people who might be vulnerable to conspiracy theories and extreme media look like day to day? On what are their fears based? How might our own fears or concerns collide or intersect? I’ve never felt more strongly about the work that we do, the questions we ask and the conversations that we have on “This Is Life” than I do now, because it’s been, I have always believed, that the more we know about each other, the better we become. This show has given viewers a window into the private lives of people that you may have heard of or have an opinion about, but never really taken the time to get to know. Now is the time to get to know more intimately the lives of our fellow Americans.
In our final season, we take a probative look at the future of humanity itself, focusing, for instance, on the long-term effects of isolation and mental health. As we spend more and more time on our devices and increasingly seek validation in the form of “likes,” from people (or bots) we may not even know, our in-person exchanges are decreasing. Parents are lamenting that their kids would rather be on devices than play with other kids, engage in physical activity or do just about anything else.
In one episode, we meet a teenager named Glenn who hasn’t had a meaningful face-to-face interaction with a human being in years. Instead, he spends countless hours in his bedroom wearing an Oculus headset and journeying to virtual worlds and meeting people in the metaverse. This young man has sought to avoid profound social anxiety and rejection, but in doing so, he has lost all meaningful in-person interaction. If more people like him start forgoing human relationships, we could start losing the ability to interact with one another. The potential of becoming desensitized to the human experience and emotions, while existing in a virtual world, could be very real.
By doing this, a young man who professes to have intense social anxiety, Glenn can avoid having to deal with the rejection that has plagued him his whole young life. But when legions of people start living without meaningful human relationships, what does that mean for our species?
As Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk writes in the bestselling, “The Body Keeps Score,” “Being able to be safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
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After an almost two-hour VR session in Glenn’s bedroom – I was the only person outside of his family who has ever been in his room – where we slayed dragons and took part in a speed dating game that, at times, tested Glenn’s anxiety, he told me of his deepest wish.
“I would really like to have a girlfriend one day,” he said, “a real girlfriend.”
No matter how “real” virtual reality becomes, once you take the headset off, you’re still alone. And nothing compares to human touch, comfort, vulnerability and emotion. Those are things that we are supposed to feel. The human connections I’ve made with everyone who has participated on our show over the years, have changed me. The depths of the stories people have shared with me, the vibration of their bodies as they’ve wept, at times, in my arms. Witnessing the joyful faces of those who’ve overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.
It has been an honor and a privilege to share these human moments with so many over the years. I’ve become a better person as a result. And it’s these kinds of interactions that we need more of in America today. During these deeply divided times as we are being pushed further into extremes, we have to be proactive about exiting our bubbles and engaging. After all, THIS IS LIFE.
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