Loneliness Burrows Deep
written by: SAH
The May 2012 Atlantic Monthly is perhaps one of the best issues I've read lately. Stephen Marche's article "Is Facebook Making U Lonely?" is an interesting read, not for its brief reflections on the social media giant, but more for its look at what bring social means to being human and on the state of loneliness in general.
Marche notes that while our social networks are growing, at least electronically, many of us lack the close social network of "real friends" needed to feel good, un-lonely, human. He notes a survey that illustrates a dramatic increase in social-emotional isolation, stating that "by 2004, 25 percent [of Americans] had nobody to talk to and 20 percent had only one confidant."
By "talk to" of course, he does not mean tweet, email or post on someone's wall. He means talk, with words, in person, about things that matter deeply to an individual. I certainly feel this isolation myself, though I don't think I've yet hit the 25 percent with no one to talk to. The trend is one that should concern us as a society, as the inability to connect with anybody will only decrease our ability to be empathetic to others.
He notes that the American cultural tendency toward self-reliance (reflected more in our rhetoric and ideals than practice) only serve to increase this slow isolation. I won't quote Marche's long passage on the America's "long-standing national appetite for independence," but it rang true. In describing early Pilgrims he says, "They did not seek out loneliness, but they accepted it as the price of their autonomy."
That, in my opinion, seems to speak to "freedom" more than even the inalienable rights we now seem mostly content to have violated so long as it doesn't seem to impact us personally; an attitude that only reinforces the idea that we, as a people, seek loneliness. We want what's not good for us.
Marche's observation carries through to a certainly arguably, but nevertheless poignant assertion that loneliness is core to our literature as well: "The great American poem is Whitman's 'Song of Myself.' the great American essay is Emerson's 'Self-Reliance.' The great American novel is Melville's 'Moby-Dick,' the tale of a man on a quest so lonely that it is incomprehensible to those around him"
Is our journey as a nation one of incomprehensible loneliness? How can a so-called melting pot of the world's cultures be so lonely? Then again, how can it not be? We are a nation divided into ever-smaller segments by marketing, by politics, by technology. American is a nation of One, where each person lives in a country that exists only in their own mind.
Marche mentions Schopenhauer's "Studies in Pessimism" as well, the opening line of which is "Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim."
And now we are down the rabbit hole.
I recently listened to an episode of Star Talk Radio ("The Space Between Your Ears") in which the idea of isolation as punishment is discussed. The reason solitary confinement is do damaging is that human's physically need the presence of other humans to not go mad.
"Loneliness burrows deep," Marche notes (that phrase perhaps being one of the best I've ever read, and from which I obviously took my title). "We invite loneliness even though it makes us miserable."
We are lonely in public. Together. "We are lonely because we want to be lonely. We have made ourselves lonely."
Is this path, this trend, one of self destruction? Will we desperately claw our way back from the abyss?
I tend to think so. The percentage of people with no one to talk to may grow, but I doubt it will consume us. Social media is, of course, still new. It takes time to adjust as a society, as a species. We may see an entire generation digitally isolated, but I have a feeling that before lone the pendulum will swing and we will cease "friending" people we hardly know and using our technology to connect more deeply with those we do. For example, while most of Marche's article struck me as depressing as it was interesting, he does note that already, with Google+ the new all-seeing eye of social media, encourages people when they sign up to include in your friends circle “your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable sharing private details with.”
So, we may need lessons in how not to be lonely, lessons in how to be and have a non-digital friend, but close social interaction is so core to our species that we have only two choices, be lonely and vanish or be friendly and live on.
I wrote this while listening to Philip Glass's Glass: Solo Piano (Metamorphosis 1-5), a beautiful, but inarguably lonely piece. Though I suppose that could be said for most of his work. Hell, the last five minutes of "Prophesies," when played at adequate volume, damn near make me cry every time I hear them. Despite its chorus, it is decidedly isolating. But I digress.
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