Last time we looked at our need to develop a new kind of power that brings people together rather than putting them in conflict. This is especially important now because we’re suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, if you believe the internet. Many are keen to blame social networking, but it might not be that simple.
One survey by Relate found that a significant minority of people had no close friends and rarely felt loved. This kind of bean counting is always suspect because you can never know if people are telling the truth. Saying that you’re lonely can make you feel vulnerable or open to ridicule, so some of us may be more lonely than we’re willing to admit.
There’s a stigma around social isolation and a sense of failure attached to loneliness. If you’re lonely it must be because there’s something wrong with you. Nobody wants to feel left out or unloved, but if you blame yourself for being alone, it just makes the isolation worse.
Loneliness is a complex problem with multiple causes and it doesn’t just effect the elderly. The Mental Health Foundation found that 18-34 year-olds were more likely to feel lonely than people over 55. Society is becoming more fragmented as more of us live alone and move away from our home towns to attend university or look for work.
The long term effects of loneliness can be damaging to your physical and mental health – as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to one study. Other effects of loneliness include:
- increased risk of developing heart disease and stroke
- increased risk of high blood pressure
- increased risk of cognitive decline, such as dementia
- more likely to experience depression
The Campaign to End Loneliness in older people has made a short film to illustrate the problem. It’s called The Loneliness Project and asks: could you spend a week alone without seeing anyone? My answer to that question is: Yes, easy-peasy! But then I’m probably unusual. Watch Joe’s experience:
Why doesn’t Joe go out for a walk? Read a book? There are loads of things you can do when you’re alone – you don’t have to sit about feeling sorry for yourself and playing solitaire!
Obviously the film was made to make a point about loneliness, but to me it just highlights the difference between introverts and extroverts. Loneliness must be excruciating for extroverts who need a regular supply of other people in order to feel good. Introverts would relish a week alone.
And as for proper bona fide loners like me: I can spend months alone with almost zero contact with other humans – perhaps the occasional trip to the shop, or some interaction online or via email. But I’m quite happy bimbling along on my own and will go out of my way to be alone.
To cope with being alone you need to have access to inner resources and a relationship with your own inner world. You need imagination. Without these things you’re left with nothing to sustain you – what a sad existence! I find it almost incomprehensible.
But I do understand the feeling of not belonging or being invisible. I’ve felt like that my whole life. But that feeling of loneliness is more likely to strike when I’m with other people. I feel more alone when I’m with others than I do when I’m solitary.
The need for company probably exists on a spectrum, with extreme loners at one end and co-dependent limpets at the other. Most people will be somewhere in the middle and have a mix of extrovert and introvert tendencies. However, even extreme loners need other people sometimes.
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 make sure we behave and go along with the crowd. In the past, excommunication from the tribe would have meant certain death.
But the real problem with loneliness isn’t a lack of other people. Loneliness is about not feeling connected to others, and that can happen even when surrounded by friends and family. If anything, feeling lonely in a crowd is worse than feeling lonely when you’re alone.
Most of us now live in crowded urban environments, but we often have no real connection with those around us. How many of you know the names of your 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. (Hello, I’m a loner, pleased to meet you!) 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 complain about the decline of the neighbourhood. This can lead to an Us v Them mentality that’s reinforced by the media and much of what passes for ‘connection’ on networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
It turns out that loneliness is normal. In fact, loneliness seems to be part of the human condition. It’s impossible to be human and not feel lonely at some point. This is because even when you have genuine personal connections with family and friends, there’s a deeper part of yourself that’s held back. You may not even realise you’re doing it because it’s mostly unconscious. It happens because the ego defines itself by exclusion – by building walls around itself.
As long as you’re operating through the ego, you’ll be lonely, whether you allow yourself to feel it or not. You might not notice because our culture provides plenty of distractions to ensure you never discover the truth of your deep discontentment. But until you transcend the ego and its petty fears and games, you’ll be unable to form genuinely satisfying relationships with anyone, including yourself.
So it’s 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. This 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, as we saw with the Grenfell disaster in the previous post.
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 2014 devastating floods caused death and destruction across Bosnia and Slovenia. The area had been torn apart by war in the 1990s, 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. People don’t respond the same way to danger or crisis, and in extreme situations some people will pull apart rather than pull 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 and recognising 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 level progressively widens your sense of self by demonstrating how you belong to a larger whole. The four levels of community are:
- Groups you feel at home in
- The wider community around you
- The global community of humanity
- The Earth community of life
Groups you 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.
The wider community around you 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’re embedded in nature and dependent on it to live. Protecting other species and ecosystems is our duty. We can’t live without them. 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.
But 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’re not at war with the air and water and earth that keep us alive. It’s 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 if we don’t change.
“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’ll look at time speeding up and how to time travel