“In these situations I felt liberated from the persistent weight of loneliness, the sensation of wrongness, the agitation around stigma and judgment and visibility. But it didn’t take much to shatter the illusion of self-forgetfulness, to bring me back not only to myself but to the familiar, excruciating sense of lack. Sometimes the trigger was visual – a couple holding hands, something as trivial and innocuous as that. But more often it had to do with language, with the need to communicate, to understand and make myself understood via the medium of speech.” Olivia Lang “The Lonely City”
The urban landscape is a nucleus of human bodies piled on top of, yet not knowing or touching one another. Many of us live in small worlds, separated in distance and death to those we love or know. Some of us are truly alone and some of us just feel alone. The Jo Cox commission pronounced loneliness as the “giant evil” of our time, an epidemic especially amongst young people.
George Monbiot has called our time, “The Age of Loneliness”, where the underlying principles of competition and individualism, spurred on by a global religion of profits, pit man against man in a painful life-denying dance.
The effects are disastrous. We are literally killing ourselves in the rush to accumulate wealth and admiration, sacrificing our needs for togetherness, mutuality and cooperation. The truth is we need each other to survive. Prof Jane Cummings, the chief nursing officer for England, said: “Social isolation can have a devastating impact not only on people’s mental wellbeing, but evidence shows that it can also increase the risk of premature death by around a third.” Social isolation has the same effects on life longevity as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
And the more our public spaces are sold off, the more lonely and inadequate we feel, the more we are turning to our screens with rapidly increasing numbers; people are staring into phones, scrolling and scrolling, unable to stop. The increasing need for admiration and likes is directly correlated to our decreasing feelings of self worth and community. The more we post, the unhappier we are.
What is being manufactured is a disconnected society, a society that is forgetting how to talk to one another. In English speaking psychotherapy the therapy sessions for expats are a place where we are fighting for this basic need. Talking, listening and understanding are not the cure, but they are powerful tools for healing. We are learning to accept what makes us essentially human so that we can bring that out of the office and into the world around us. It is not about how much money we have or how many likes we accumulate, but how deeply we feel and connect to each other, in person.
Perhaps we might all play a part in a kinder society, perhaps the simplest act of resistance to the changes all around us and the erosion of our communities and connections is to simply start a conversation, to start talking to one another, whether in a queue or on the phone. Perhaps we can be more aware when we post on social media, that for each happy wedding photo you post there may be someone out there seeing that who feels so inadequate they could die. What would it feel like to extend your empathy to all of your online friends? Would you send your one single friend endless happy photos of yourself happily in love? There are many ways we can fight against loneliness, it is in the small actions we take and the awareness and empathy we cultivate that can make a difference.