Read the updated version of this post: Active Hope and the Power of Community
Do you feel lonely? If the internet is to be believed, we’re currently suffering an epidemic of loneliness. Many are keen to blame social networking, but it might not be that simple.
A recent survey by Relate in the UK found that a significant minority of people had no close friends and rarely felt loved. This kind of bean counting is always suspect as you can never know if people are telling the truth. What one person defines as a friend, another may see as an acquaintance, so some of us may be more lonely than we’re willing to admit.
Humans are social creatures. We thrive in supportive environments and the more social connections we have, the happier and healthier we tend to be. We hate the idea of being cut off from others, and the threat of ostracism is enough to ensure we behave and go along with the crowd. In the past, excommunication from the tribe would have meant certain death, and it’s still the case now that a lack of genuine connection with others is linked to higher death rates.
Social exclusion is painful and we’re understandably keen to avoid it, but loneliness isn’t about being alone, even if the two are often conflated. Loneliness is about not feeling connected to others, and that can happen even when surrounded by ‘friends’.
We live in crowded urban environments, but often have no real connection with those around us. How many of us even know the names of our neighbours? I know one or two, but that’s only because I’ve taken in parcels for them, not because I’ve made an effort to get to know them. Even after a recent fire in the building, we all kept to ourselves again once the danger was over.
As a society we have a tendency to withdraw into our own little worlds, hidden behind locked doors and widescreen TVs, and then bemoan the decline of the neighbourhood. We fall into an Us v Them mentality which is reinforced by the media and much of what passes for ‘connection’ on networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Loneliness seems to be part of the human condition. Even if we’re lucky enough to have genuine personal connections with family and friends, there’s often still a deeper part of the self that is held back.
This is how the ego works – it defines itself by exclusion, by building walls. As long as you’re operating through the ego, you will be lonely, whether you allow yourself to feel it or not. Our culture provides plenty of distraction and misdirection to ensure we never discover the truth about our discontent. But it’s very simple: until you transcend the ego and its petty fears and games, you will be unable to form genuinely satisfying relationships with anyone, including yourself.
It is our identification with the ego that makes us feel lonely. It also drives conflict and lack of trust within our communities, fuelling the Us v Them mindset.
The ego problem appears to be a big stumbling block, but it doesn’t take much to overcome it. There are countless examples of people coming together to tackle a threat to their community. In the face of natural disasters or emergencies, a sense of community springs up and goes into action, almost as if it were lying dormant and just waiting for the right moment.
Emergencies remind us we’re all the same and that anyone can become a victim of tragedy or disaster. A life-threatening situation brings people together and reminds us that life is more meaningful if we live for each other, rather than just for ourselves. In the Joy of the Blackout, Sean Crawley looks at the upside of a community forced to get to know each other in an emergency:
“..Books, photo albums, playing cards and acoustic instruments are resuscitated back to life as the grid-dependent plastic gadgets sit powerless in the corner. ..the long lost art of face to face human interaction is rekindled as the internet’s virtual worlds and social networks collapse at the speed of light… Family members get to know each other again, or for the first time, and some of those neighbours who you invited over to share the now-thawed side of lamb are actually not weirdos at all. People share food, stories and human-powered tools.”
Another example: in May devastating floods caused death and destruction across Bosnia and Slovenia. The area was torn apart by war in the 90s, with neighbours killing each other in the name of nationalism. What remained has now been washed away in the floods, but the Yugoslavians have rediscovered their solidarity, “..this time, we’re not killing each other. We’re helping each other instead.”
Levels of Community
To move from a defensive Us v Them stance to one of supportive community depends upon our relationship to power. If we use the power-over model, we’re more likely to rely on force to maintain order and believe we must defend ourselves against a world filled with enemies. This is how things are done around the world today, and it makes the slow unravelling of civilisation so much more destructive. Not everyone responds in the same way to danger or crisis, and in extreme situations people often pull apart rather than pulling together.
To transform this lack of connection we need to change the way we think and how we see ourselves. It means moving from power-over to power-with in order to recognise our inherent interdependence and interconnectivity. None of us can survive alone. We’re not self-sufficient and we need each other.
Active Hope explores four levels of community. Each progressively widens our sense of self by demonstrating how we belong to a larger whole. The four levels of community are:
- Groups we feel at home in
- The wider community around us
- The global community of humanity
- The Earth community of life
Groups we feel at home in are small groups of like-minded people working together to bring about changes in the local community. It’s easy to feel connected to people with whom you share values and common goals. This is a good place to start to reconnect before venturing further afield into..
The wider community around us is where people come together for larger causes. The Transition movement is a good example of this level of community. This is a global network of initiatives working towards building community resilience in readiness for the failure of the old industrial model of civilisation.
The global community of humanity is about recognising we’re all in this together. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The Earth community of life recognises that we are embedded in nature and dependent on it to live. Protecting other species and ecosystems is our duty. Without them, we cannot live. Activist and writer Duane Elgin puts it like this:
“Our extermination of other species has been compared to popping rivets out of the wings of an airplane in flight. How many rivets can the plane lose before it begins to fall apart catastrophically? How many species can our planet lose before we cross a critical threshold where the integrity of the web of life is so compromised that it begins to come apart, like an airplane that loses too many rivets and disintegrates?”
The more we cling to our fragile egos, the more we fear each other. The more we fear each other, the more we hate. The more we hate, the more we kill.
Loneliness is unnecessary. We don’t need to protect ourselves from each other or from nature. The natural world has our backs. The Earth has supported us from the start. We are not at war with the air and water and earth that keep us alive. It is only our misguided perception of ourselves as separate from life that keeps this whole sorry mess going; and it won’t be going for very much longer.
“Only when humans have completed the transformation of Earth from a luxuriant, verdant, bountiful and nurturing home into something akin to their own sterile, barren and lifeless inner landscape will they finally understand the horror they have visited upon themselves; and then it will be too late.” – Richard Posner
It’s time to remember whose side you’re on. Pick a team.
Next we look at the effects of time speeding up in Slow Down: How to Travel in Time