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Loneliness Is Such An Honest Word

Two readers write to talk about their isolation

A reader writes:

Hi Rod, I’ve been reading your articles for several months now. I’m a 29 year old male on the east coast. I think your most recent article is absolutely correct about the decline of American culture, and I think a lot of it is due to lack of sense of community as you’ve said. I’ve felt an absence of a community for a long time now and I have no idea how to fix it in a meaningful way. I absolutely feel lonely. Meeting friends through sports or hobbies won’t provide the sense of community that I feel is missing. I feel like the only people who I have in my life are my parents and my sister and her family. I think the only way to feel okay socially in our culture is to have a reliable significant other, and that’s very hard to find for the same reason that it’s hard to find reliable friends, because everyone just wants to do their own thing. I do have friends. But most have moved away, gotten engaged or married, and one is an alcoholic and our friendship is falling apart. I don’t think I’m an incredible social outcast or the only person experiencing this kind of social life.

I’ve been looking into different religions for years and have been searching for God and I pray sometimes, but I haven’t found an interpretation that is satisfying and seems like it will stick around against the massive cultural change. I was raised with very loose ties to Catholicism.

My grandma recently died and I told my dad that if he died I would have no idea of who to contact and how. Most of my relatives are the funeral and wedding only type. I have no connection to any of them. Regardless I only have two first cousins who live in different states. Our family is dying out.  I think people who come from more recent immigrant backgrounds may have more of a more meaningful connections but that isn’t my experience so I don’t know.

I feel like socially we are falling apart as a country. There are no social expectations or rules anymore. And I get mad about it. I feel like I was given a preview of what normal was supposed to be while growing up and it has steadily been taken away. We had social rules that if maintained would pressure and shame some people, yes that is mean in a way if you don’t measure up, but it’s also necessary. Now instead everyone is free to become a degenerate and nothing feels like it makes sense anymore. People are becoming transgender subconsciously because they have no other way to feel like they have an identity or community. These reasons are definitely part of why I voted for Trump and I feel drawn to the alt-right. Everything about the supposedly horrible alt-right makes sense to me. I hate what is happening, I have very little hope for the future and I have no idea what to do about it. I admitted to the friends that I do have that I have no problem voting for Trump as a F*** You vote. Burn it down, it’s not working anymore anyway.

BTW my friends my age were all Bernie supporters and none of them are optimistic about our soon to be gender-less utopia society either.

Another reader writes:

I just finished reading your post covering the two essays by Umair Haque, and I thought both he and yourself brought up great points on the challenges facing the modern American youth. I don’t want to say we face the greatest challenge of any generation of American youth, but certainly one of the greatest, at least post World War Two. Yet it seems instead of aiding us, our leaders, if anyone in the US can really claim that role, instead seem intent on continuing to squabble like petulant children, fighting over every single little thing. And while many adults do care for us and our future, many others seem only to care for their own self interests and goals, whether they be a average person on the street or the leader of a Fortune 500 company, not bothering to lend a hand unless it benefits them, willing to stamp out a hundred futures if it helps theirs.

Loneliness, as was pointed out, is a huge problem. It often feels like there is an isolation, not just from those immediately around you but from society as a whole. That instead of each person living their own lives but still sharing the common human experience, there is instead everyone having their own, isolated experiences, cut off from one another by individual bubbles. That the only way to be heard is to do something loud or noisy, the equivalent of screaming in a crowded room to be noticed, if only temporary. And in some ways that’s how it feels. Walking through a room, everyone else glued to their screens, no one talking or interacting, except perhaps to show a “friend” whatever it is they saw on their phone, before going back into their own self contained bubbles. It feels isolating and in some ways saddening when you are having a conversation with a friend or family member, only to look and see them entranced by their devices. The internet was supposed to help connect humanity, but it seems it’s becoming abundantly clear what that means; connect humanity, not people. It has helped connect us as a collective, but our personal connections are severered. Perhaps it has delivered no greater tragic irony than that my ability to communicate with a person on the other side of the globe has never been easier, yet the ability for me to communicate with a person next to me has perhaps never been more difficult.

And there are those who would dismiss such talk of a loneliness crisis or pandemic as nonsense, or the ramblings of some madmen, but one need only see teenagers or a crowd of them to know it’s not. Perhaps you can’t tell at first, but if one were to look closer, in too many individuals you’d find the signs of loneliness, perhaps accompanied by that most despicable and foul creature, depression, both possibly visible in the gateway to the soul that are the eyes. If you go to a high school or any other place teenagers are gathered, you can also witness these anxieties, and at school almost sense it, beyond the normal worries of school, like a dark cloud hanging low on a stormy day, only it never seems to let up. I have had my own battles with depression and loneliness, still do, and that many either do not see this or worse, purposely ignore it is not just shocking, but horrifying beyond almost every sense of the word.

There is also sometimes a feeling of intellectual loneliness. By this I mean it seems that no longer can one formulate their own opinion or choose a moderate position, perhaps using a Hegelian Dialectic approach. No. Instead one must choose on of two extremes, or one of several prescribed political labels, and must choose from these groups. This goes beyond politics as well though. You have to engage in a sort of group thought, and have popular opinions, popular in that you’re with a group of people who share them, opinions invalid unless enough share them. It can be debilitating and suffocating.

Since perhaps the mid 1800s, a generation of youths could at least somewhat expect their lives would be better than that of their parents. Even during the darkest times, that light was always there, almost a beacon to follow to the end. But now it’s like that light is gone, burnt out, leaving us stuck in the wilderness, alone and forgotten, the darkness swirling around us, the predators lurking, waiting for the right moment to strike, like a pack of wolves surrounding a herd of sheep that have been abandoned by their shepherd, just led to the slaughter. It doesn’t seem like our lives will be better than that of our parents, or if our children’s will be better than ours, and though much of that will also be up to our own decisions, much of it is also going to be based on the hand we were dealt with when we were young, and that hand doesn’t look great. We are facing a crisis of the mind and spirit, one that is now becoming, and has for a while now, been also of the body, one of drugs and violence, one of harm.

We will have a hard and difficult future ahead of us. We will be left with a planet whose stewardship was neglected, whose nations are caught in never ending wars and disputes, and whose people are suffering needlessly.

But I’m an optimist, despite what this email may have indicated, and I do believe, God willing, we can pull through. Our generation is smart, and does continue to share those human qualities that have seen us through other times of great peril, ranging from our ingenuity to our endurance. It will be a tough journey, one that many will be lost upon, but it can be conquered. But the failure of our leaders and elders to aid us makes our task far more difficult.

Thanks for taking the time to read this sir. It does reflect a lot of my own personal opinions, so I know not all will share them, even other members of my own generation. But this crisis of spirit and loneliness needs to be addressed, and I’m glad writers such as yourself are. A problem can’t be solved at all if it isn’t even identified.

Thank you, men. These were hard posts to read, but you have articulated something that many people are dealing with right now. I was reading a book tonight by a psychiatrist who discusses the profound and spreading malaise in the West. He cites studies showing how much more anxious and unhappy people in the West are, not only compared to much poorer countries, but compared to our own populations in the 1950s. We were significantly poorer then, had harder material lives, and had less liberty, and freedom of choice, than we have today.

The difference, he said (again, citing studies) is that back then we had much stronger social networks. Real social networks, not social media.

I wish I had more words of comfort to offer these men. Maybe you do. Let’s hear them.

UPDATE: Fascinating comment from reader kjunshi:

I do agree with these two in many ways, but I have a message for your first commentator.

If you want community in these times – perhaps in any time, but especially and specifically in these times – you have to build it yourself. Among all the weaknesses of how men in this culture are raised, I think this is one of the greatest. Again and again I see men in my life sort of “floating” through dumbly, eternally baffled that social relations of all types (romantic, sure, but especially *friendship*) aren’t just falling into place. My husband, my brother, my father and father-in-law have all been guilty of this at some point – of them all, only my father has ‘pulled himself up by the bootstraps’ and created a friendship community without the specific help of a woman. The learned helplessness is really astounding.

Currently, I keep communication going between my family members – and I mean *all* of them – and most of our friend group. I can see that I am going to be the one going forward that keeps community ties intact for the Millenial generation, and maintain that vibrant community for my son to grow up in. I suppose a lot of men think this just happens because of my genitals or something. It does not. There is a checklist anyone can follow, no matter what’s between the legs (or ears).

1) The lack of community and friendship will destroy you – physically, mentally, emotionally. Acknowledge this for the threat to you that it is. Accept the reality of your biology. (Being an “introvert” is NOT an excuse. Your introversion will not save you.)

2) Know that every social tie you do not personally maintain will be lost to you. Acknowledge your responsibility for your part of the equation.

3) Be ruthless with your time and effort – you cannot be everything to everybody. Decide your priorities, *and dedicate your time there*. I strongly suggest choosing people who you actively enjoy spending time with, who fulfill rather than drain you, and who add to your life. Don’t overdedicate time for “duty” relationships. However, having said that…

4) Social relations aren’t all or nothing. I have “tiers” of relations, which I divide up by how much time I have to spend on them. For example:

a) Immediate family – I live with them, or nearly so.
b) Close friends – I personally make time to meet them at least once or twice a month, usually sharing a meal.
b-2) Coworkers – a different type of social relation, but I spend 8 hours a day with them, so this must also be cultivated carefully.
c) Temporarily distant friends – these people have the ability to be a close friend at any time, but due to circumstances are unable to meet frequently right now. Meeting is NECESSARY to maintain friendships. NO MEET, NO TALK, NO FRIEND. To keep these people in orbit, I host parties roughly once a month to which I invite anyone who can come, and provide free food. I also attend as many events hosted by them as I can. The judicious use of Facebook can assist. Semi-distant family (meet on holidays) is in this group.
d) Associates – I like most of them well enough, but we’ve never hung out long enough to establish a friendship connection. Distant family is in this group. Facebook is how I would know anything about what is going on in their lives, but honestly, there’s diminishing returns here. I keep in contact by writing a yearly Christmas letter – I add new acquaintances every year, and am currently at 250 people for the circulation.
e) Potential new people who can be part of one of the tiers – I’m always keeping an eye out, especially for the bottom two.

5) Drop all resentment now about what others “should be doing.” It’s going to lock you in a torturous citadel of self-satisfied loneliness. You’re going to take up the majority of work, or at least it’s going to feel that way, and you need to accept that, because in the end it’s all for your own benefit. However, those who do not respond in kind sooner rather than later need to be dropped a tier.

6) Mentioned above, but NEVER let things stagnate. If you don’t stir the pool, the social circle rots away. Always be open to new connections, and when you see a chance, make one, even if at just the acquaintance level (which is mostly what I do nowadays).

7) Toxic people must be eliminated from your life without hesitation or reserve. Family ties should not stay your hand for even a millisecond. Having said that, if there’s significant positive history there, see first if it’s possible to drop them a tier or two instead. I put my parents at arms length – quietly – while they were in the thick of their divorce, but now that they’ve stabilized and are friendly to each other, they’ve come back in the top two tiers. Situations can change ?

8) And finally, the technique itself… think carefully about what YOU can do that helps THE OTHER PERSON. Sometimes that’s providing a sympathetic listening ear. Sometimes that’s going hiking with someone. Sometimes that’s showing up with beer and a video game. Sometimes you host a party with a really nice meal and invite a bunch of people. If something doesn’t work, think harder! Clearly what you were providing wasn’t helping THEM. As a parent myself, with my baby son sleeping on me as I write, perhaps you could offer to watch the children and let your friends sleep? Or at least buy them a meal when they can’t leave the house. Or… or… look, you know these people, but try to be creative here.

9) You cannot ask anything of other people that you have not already provided to them. To bve clear: YOU CANNOT ASK ANYTHING OF OTHER PEOPLE THAT YOU HAVE NOT ALREADY PROVIDED TO THEM. No one will help you move if you didn’t shift some boxes for them when they moved. No one will come over to take care of you when you are sick if you didn’t at least send a meal for them when they were sick. Someone has to start the chain going – let it be you. Because who else will?

10) Last but not least – have empathy. Sometimes people just can’t do it right now. Sometimes your friends’ lives change, or your family member moves away for a job. Sometimes a relationship fails, sometimes the other person just lets things… end. While you should certainly check in to make sure they’re OK, often times it is the kind thing to step back a pace – while leaving the door open – and just let them do what they have to do in their lives. Aside from family that you live with, YOU need to be strong enough to let this happen to friends from time to time, and not to be angry or resentful about it. If it’s meant to be, they’ll come back to you and your friendship will revive.

There’s more to the technique but this comment is long enough. Having the right psychology is 90% of the battle, anyway. Everything else you can learn from trial and error. But–young man #1– you have to DO. Complain, sure, but then turn your energy to DOING! Get those email addresses for your cousins, and from friends who have moved away! Write a holiday letter if nothing else! Or perhaps offer to babysit for your friends with kids… or… or… look, you have to do the work here, you know these people. DO. Society sucks, yes I agree, now stop making excuses right the heck now and – DO.

That’s really helpful advice to me, I must admit. I have sunk into an introverted rut, and need to hear what you’ve said here.

She adds in a separate comment:

OK, now that I’ve screamed in their ear with a megaphone… I get it. I really do. It’s true that a Millennial’s life can be crushingly lonely. At times, my own life has been that way. I moved away immediately after college to start a shiny, prestigious international career – and crashed, and burned *hard*. The shame and the stress nearly overwhelmed me. I had no friends, no family, no one to talk to. At one point I had an powerful urge to leave my apartment, get on a train, go to the end point of the train, and just walk until I collapsed… seeing as it was February in the equivalent of Siberia, this could have been dangerous to my own life. I wrestled with what I should do – the feeling of failure making me think maybe I should just disappear – and then of all the things I suddenly remembered the funeral of my childhood pet the previous year, when my stoic father had suddenly wept and said he hoped he would never have to bury me. At the time I’d thought this was a bit histronic (pet was old, not very well, pets die forchrissakes), but it swayed my hand. I called a suicide helpline and was able to calm down.

Later, I was shocked by how close to the edge I had come – me, with no previous health challenges or mental illness! I resolved right there to ‘fix’ my situation and never to let it happen again. And it never has. But make no mistake, it has been an uphill battle that I’ve had to start from scratch at least twice. Most of my free time is involved in friendship creation and maintenance, and I expect I will be doing that until I die.

I’ve realized and accepted for ten years or so that my generation is the one that will lose things – that we will have less than the ones who came before. But I don’t despair about it – quite frankly our society has such a preposterous amount of wealth that we could lose 50% of it and still live decent lives by historical standards. Of course, the transition could be extremely rough, but I’m betting on a gradual-ish collapse. Trump may possibly be the beginning of the slide. Or not! Comparing ourselves to Rome, I take away that there have been a lot of peaks before the final collapse, and that even that collapse wasn’t as fast as it seems with historical hindsight.

Also, I personally suspect that a lot of “progress” can go in the dustbin and our lives might even get BETTER. Losing the 3,000 mile Caesar salad will prioritize fresh local food. Expensive driving will lead to more walking, which will increase health. Less internet = more community. Who will be buying and trading heroin if we no longer have stocked shelves in the grocery store? The black market will turn itself to healthier ends ASAP. Crises will shatter bureaucracy, and leave the door open to better solutions. And cynical though this thought is, an actual war that genuinely threatens us would do more to knit this country back together than anything else…

Is this optimistic? Extremely. But I take some solace in the fact that most of our society’s problems come from having Too Much. Too Much food. Too Much stuff. Too Much national news. Too Much technology. Too Much cheap energy, which we waste at a shocking rate. Too Much independence, past the point where it’s physically healthy. And yes, Too Much capitalism. I’m no Marxist but there needs to be some counterbalance. So… if the excess vanishes… isn’t there a chance that we can put something together that better respects our own limits and that of society? I’d rather put my energy there, to be honest. I hope more Millennials join me – but I say that knowing that circumstances will likely compel them to. I’ll meet them on the way down ?



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