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Essay: Why is the Modern World so Lonely?
Loneliness is truly heartbreaking.
When I would work in a call centre, I get calls from old people all the time, who would usually say the same kind of thing,
“I was the only person that they’ve spoken to all day, other than their TV.”
There’s something so wrong about it, some ancestral memory that our lives shouldn’t be this way, that we should be together in a community. I mean if we could find some way to organise ourselves so that we could spend more time together but obviously, that’s not gonna happen now.
This is objective loneliness, not having anyone around. As I’ll explain in this particular article, the loneliness problem is more complicated than just lack of human interaction, because while a lot of people over seventy who are experiencing objective loneliness because of their isolation also interestingly eighty percent of young people report feeling lonely sometimes and seem to be the next highly affected group. When you’re young this is the time when you have the most friends, when you spend so much time socialising, in school, outside of school. there will never be a time when you’re surrounded by more people, and yet even young people are feeling so cripplingly isolated and alone. What is the root of this problem?
When I was younger I felt very lonely. I felt alienated. I distinctly remember thinking while walking home one day across the green, that I was alienated from my culture, from religion, from my family, from my friends, and from society, that I wasn’t just alone in person, I was spiritually alone. That’s a difficult feeling to contend with, and it made me feel like an outsider, probably because I grew up in a parish as well and had no religion, so I didn’t have any way into the community that was obvious. Also, then having trouble with my family was difficult there, I just felt different from my friends, I think that’s a pretty common thing for most people to feel, really. But it just seemed like levels of loneliness and for a very long time just kind of threw myself against the social wall trying to figure out a way through, trying to get to the top, but that’s not the answer either.
I think the problem is diagnosed very well by Hunter S. Thompson in this quote. He says,
‘But in a society with no central motivation, so far adrift and puzzled with itself that its President feels called upon to appoint a Committee on National Goals, a sense of alienation is likely to be very popular--especially among people young enough to shrug off the guilt they’re supposed to feel for deviating from a goal or purpose they never understood in the first place. Let the old people wallow in the shame of having failed. The laws they made to preserve a myth are no longer pertinent; the so-called American way begins to seem like a dike made of cheap cement, with many more leaks than the law has fingers to plug. America has been breeding mass anomie since the end of World War II. It is not a political thing, but the sense of new realities, or urgency, anger and sometimes desperation in a society where even the highest authorities seem to be grasping at straws.’
Now, he wrote this in America in the seventies, but it seems to be more prevalent in western society now than ever. The obvious answer to the modern epidemic of loneliness is the lack of socialising, that we used to have bigger families, communities, no internet, more quality time and obviously now with having to stay home and socially isolation, it’s just ramping it up even more and more, but what underlies his quote isn’t just the isolation from people, it’s isolation from some important part of ourselves. In part, the loneliness problem is subjective and comes from being unable to communicate effectively a shared ideal, which we all hold to be true.
This subjective aspect of modern loneliness is a spiritual loneliness, a lack of purpose, and a shared goal which would definitely be human and which we could all say we are a part of. This leads to what I’ve called cultural loneliness, which has also been called the crisis of meaning, or the void, the desire to feel connected to something larger than ourselves and our own mind which makes life meaningful. We will touch on this at the end and continue on with the project next week, as the failure of meaning in modern society is a big issue.
The solution to the problem I think lies in a quote from Carl Jung which is,
‘that loneliness does not come from having no people about one but from being unable to communicate things that seem important to oneself or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.’
Young people have grown up in a time of ever-increasing political polarisation, where different ideas have been at war. Far from just being unable to communicate one’s ideas, it’s hard to even assert what your ideals are, and what they stand for, between the titans of feuding factions. In addition, we’ve grown up in a climate of political correctness where it’s very difficult to completely vocalise yourself without fear of judgement. The long memory of technology has sped that up problem, obviously because you could say something that could potentially land you on the front cover of every newspaper in the world and be a permanent stain on your reputation. Young people are all painfully aware of how watched they are on social media and about the dangers and social costs of becoming a black sheep.
Objective loneliness is a result of organisation, cities, splitting up of families, lack of human interaction. However, subjective loneliness comes from not being able to communicate effectively with those who are already around you. Young people who should be by nature impulsive and rebellious, are instead becoming advocates of wokeness, or the conspiracy theory, right-wing, cult. When you have a particular ideologies, which is making party members and non-party members of people, you create in-groups and out-groups and hence factions of who can be trusted and who can not. Who is in and who is out. This leads to further isolation of the individual from others, which is usually solved by submitting to the group’s ideological position to get a sense of community.
Another part of the problem of subjective loneliness in young people is that sixty percent of marriages are ending up in divorces. In families with a lot of turmoil, walking on eggshells and unresolved problems become the norm. The divorce occurs because of unsolvable problems and dilemmas and we now have a majority of children growing up in homes where this is the case, how do we expect them to be competent in relational problem solving with no clear example to follow? You have children growing up in broken homes where the modus operandi is that the normal functioning of a family is walking on eggshells and unresolved conflicts. Walking on eggshells is your body’s way of telling you that your subconscious is full of things that you want to say that you are not saying and walking on eggshells is the trademark sign of a bad relationship, the sign which John Gottman, a relationship specialist, can use to predict divorce with 95% accuracy.
The lack of effective communication skills and effective conflict resolution in the wider society and families is what is being taught to young people and particularly a generation that is more vulnerable because of deficient of face to face interactions due to technology. In many colleges now they are having to train students to recognise facial expressions because of the amount of screen time and lack of face to face interactions. Facial expressions literally are emotions, facial expressions are human universals and exist trans-culturally, they are part of our biology, so if children cannot recognise they are missing the majority of human non verbal communication This is a massive problem particularly because of a multiplier effect where failure in social interactions will make you less likely to attempt them in the future, and hence increase loneliness and isolation lifelong. Two good books on this topic are The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Igen by Jessica Twenge.
Loneliness always involves some level of feeling rejection. If you are voluntarily choosing solitude as part of a vocation, you will not feel lonely. Solitude is a part of your growth and development and not a punishment. So loneliness always implies some desire for people, connection, and a sense of community. When you already feel lonely, the fear of rejection is incredibly heightened, and it would be the realisation of your worst fears possible so perhaps better not to try.
In a biological sense your body perceives social isolation as a threat to you because you are the bottom of the hierarchy and hence more vulnerable to predators, this is part of the reason why loneliness is so bad for your health, because your body is reacting to isolation as if you are in danger by producing cortisol and other stress hormones.
When you’re already lonely, isolated, in pain, rejection just seems like another problem you don’t want to contend with. It’s easier to pretend to be somebody else, if no one likes you then at least it’s not really you. However, this will not solve the problem of subjective loneliness, only quality relationships can do so, or an adjustment to see solitude as productive and not a punishment that is being inflicted on you. Old stories are full of wise people going into solitude. Personally, I spend most of my time on my own because this is how I do my work, and the time feels very meaningful and never lonely. A change in perspective from solitude as a punishment to a constructive time to learn about your real self and practise a craft, is also an alternative. This can turn your solitude from a prison cell into a blessing. However, if it is a connection which you are seeking with other people, you have to put your shoulders back and tell the truth. You have to reveal yourself, because if you do not reveal yourself, there is no one there for the other person to connect with, you are just a bag of cliches, borrowed ideas, and social commentaries which do not belong to you, you are a ghost. Intimacy requires vulnerability and vulnerability requires telling the truth.
A big part of loneliness is inferring negative reactions into their people behaviour because the isolation leads you to perceive the social environment as dangerous. The social environment can be dangerous, but also statistically there is a good chance other young people are in the same boat. So perhaps if you take the step and articulate yourself, if you start a group or club, if you build a community from your loneliness, you will find that other people feel very similarly to you and are grateful for your bravery rather than scorning. Instead of being met with rejection that you fear so much you would actually experience some real intimacy. It is the quality of our relationships that are most important, not the quantity.
So finally, what is cultural loneliness? This is a difficult one but it is the defining feature of the modern loneliness as I see it. I grew up as an atheist and so I felt like an outcast. Obviously in Ireland all of my friends were in the church, they were getting baptised, having communions and confirmations and I was doing feck all other than feeling left out.
The cultural landscape of the past allowed for a meaningful game to be played with clear cut aims and specified future along the lines of the Christian ethic. In my experience, growing up outside of that tradition, but still being somewhat embedded in the structure, I felt like a thorn in the side - an outsider and that was difficult. This outsider status made me resentful and angry and I would attack religion and religious people, I hated the culture in which I had grown up, and looked at the people of the past as idiots. This is the real problem with atheism, how do you explain the religious history of the world? Religion and culture could almost be synonyms if not for individual artists, so you are essentially saying, everyone else was wrong and not just wrong, but crazy, mistaken, badly mistaken They were all parochial idiots, going around doing incomprehensible and weird things, and then science came along and said it’s all bullshit and cleared the whole thing up.
I had this belief system in non-belief, which left me isolated and alienated in a spiritual sense from the wider culture and tradition in which I’d grown up. I had of course, this longing to be part of something larger than myself like everybody does, a project to give my life meaning that existed across time, a purpose, and like so many other compassionate young people, I fell into the cult of social justice to fill this void of purpose, but that only made me angry, resentful and self-destructive. It’s almost a cliche, there had to be something else?
Thankfully, this path back into the culture was offered to me by Jordan Peterson and evolutionary psychology, who successfully reframed the problem in terms of biology. The process of evolution occurred not just in our bodies but in our value systems; we tested them out and told stories about what happened. We told stories of human nature, of where greed, ambition, resentment lead us but also where love, belief, and community could take us. We mapped the whole thing out pretty well, so well, we all forgot about it! The past people were thinkers like us, just in a different way, and they spent a very long time, longer than any of our own lives, studying, testing, reporting, what worked, and what didn’t, in fantasy and story. The dynamics of groups, human desires, emotions, and motivations and that is what our culture is built on and it was worked. Our rules, which we take for granted, that constrain the destructive parts of our nature, that actually function, have come from their process of discovery and invention, trial and error. Our language, concepts, ability to write, our methods of education, technology are inherited from the past, and without these technologies, we would be as primitive as they were. Biologically we have changed very little in the last 10,000 years however culture has evolved to master our difficulties and allow us to play to our strengths. The modern world has been birthed by the sacrifices and sweat of people in the past, their ideas, routines, problem-solving, conflicts, and co-operations. The past is not dead and alien to the modern individual, it is the encoded wisdom of thousands of lives who lived in communities with friends, families, lovers, enemies and had many of the same social challenges that still plague and elude us today. Perhaps not in exact details, but certainly in knowledge, emotions, and motivations. My great realisation, which allowed me to connect with my culture, religion, and the past in general to solve the problem of my alienation, was that my life is the same as theirs, a human life is always the same, we are born, grow, desire status, recognition, the love of others, family, community and face death. We stand on equal footing in inadequacy, suffering, and loss, and in that realisation we find true equality, even fraternity with those we don’t know and never will know. If you have come to this belief correctly, loneliness takes a back seat (this is a complicated topic which I will explore further next week. )
In summary, loneliness is a problem and will continue to be a problem until we solve the problem of cultural loneliness in the modern world. The answers in the subjective sphere lie in effective communication in your own life, taking steps toward intimacy, and creating a community of individuals, that are searching for recognition, purpose, and a sense of being loved and valued by others. In doing this, creating a community, you can help solve the problem of objective loneliness for others. If you put aside your own desire, you can be the cure for others and maybe cure your own aliment in the process.