Online shopping is one of the great luxuries of our time — up there with the invention of the dishwasher and washing machine in terms of saving time and energy in our busy lives. But as a psychotherapist, I realized many years ago that shopping in stores is, for some people, an important antidote to loneliness and isolation. A quick, pleasant conversation with a salesperson or even simply taking in the energy of people in a mall could lift someone’s spirits and make them feel less alone.
So what are we doing with those lonely feelings now that we’re doing so much of our shopping online?
One of the things we’re doing, it seems, is bonding over a controversy directly related to all of that online shopping — a controversy that is escalating as holiday packages are being delivered to and stolen from in front of our homes. We're getting pissed at so-called porch pirates.
According to an article in The New York Times, in New York City alone 90,000 packages go missing daily, up 20 percent from four years ago. Many of these deliveries are stolen from front porches and building lobbies, where they are dropped off when no one is home to receive them.
The conflict, which sometimes involves name calling and heated attacks on personal values, has to do with who is at fault. Some angrily accuse the delivery companies and their employees for failing to properly ensure for the safety of the packages. Others blame the thieves, some of whom follow delivery trucks and take items as soon as they are delivered. Others attack homeowners for their sense of entitlement.
“You don’t leave your car keys in your unlocked car and assume that no one will bother to steal it, do you?” said one man I interviewed about this issue.“Why should anyone in this day and age believe that they can leave packages unattended outside their homes and not tempt someone else to take them?”
Victims of these thefts can also be attacked for not being empathetic enough to the thieves themselves. Ganave Fairley, a convicted porch thief whose story was told recently in The Atlantic, denies that she stole anything that wasn't freely available, despite being caught numerous times on surveillance and personal cameras, and calls her accusers “racist.” Some readers responded with vitriol toward the neighbors who put Fairley behind bars, perceiving their efforts to stop her as a failure to empathize with her pain and suffering in other areas of her life. One often repeated comment about Fairley is that she represents how “childhood mistreatment leads to an inability to cope with real life."
These are all age-old arguments about community members' rights to personal security and what drives a minority of people in marginalized communities to engage in antisocial behavior, sometimes stigmatized as criminal acts, but what is new about the arguments is the intensity of the anger and the resentment that seems to be driving them. And that makes me wonder if the very thing that has created the problem — the luxury of online shopping itself — has somehow contributed to people's fervor.
Much has been written about the dangers of the internet, and in particular the ways that it can make us feel lonelier and less connected. Humans are social by nature; scientist Mathew Lieberman writes in his book, "Social," that we are wired to connect. Even those of us who identify ourselves as introverts need human contact.
Shopping, at least after the specialization of labor and particularly after the rise of consumerist capitalism, has historically provided some contact for most of us, which can help with depression, loneliness and even eating disorders. But we don’t even have contact with salespeople or brush by other shoppers when we shop online.
Emma Seppala, a researcher at Stanford University, writes, “People low in social connection are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behavior and even suicidal behaviors.” Further, according to a classic study published in Science, the absence of social connection can be more damaging to our physical health than smoking, obesity or high blood pressure.
Some of the response to porch thieves, like in the case of the New York woman who takes in packages for her neighbors, and who receives thanks in cakes and cookies and friendship, is lovely.
But is it possible that joining others in a community of rage is also a way of counteracting loneliness? It would make sense these days, when we’ve grown accustomed to openly expressed anger as an acceptable form of communication.
David Ludden, a psychologist who writes for Psychology Today, says that when used well, social media can actually help us make connections. And connections are forming as people band together on one side or the other of the porch pirate controversy.
The New York Times article describes the woman who collects delivered packages for all of her neighbors, creating a community in her building. Last year a community in Phoenix organized a similar approach in time for the holidays. Neighborhood watches have sprung up in some areas — although as can happen when anger is the unifier, in some cases these watches seem to increase, rather than decrease, the conflict.
And therein is the rub. A family in Florida who filled a decoy package with dirty diapers came in for a lot of positive feedback, but also some criticism for being unkind — even more so when they discovered that the packages they thought had been stolen had actually just been delivered to the wrong address.
Anger is a powerful connector. In a world where we often tend to feel isolated and lonely, the package pirates have offered us yet one more opportunity to bond — sometimes as neighbors who take in packages for one another, and sometimes over our shared outrage. But anger can destroy bonds, in part by damaging not just the other person, but also your own self-esteem.
In the end, you have a choice about whether you’d prefer to connect over anger or over a shared solution. Perhaps when filling boxes with human feces for faceless strangers — who may or may not be the faceless strangers who took one of your packages — you might consider whether your time and energy would be better spent befriending a retired neighbor who would be happy to answer the door for a UPS delivery person in return for an occasional neighborly visit from you.