“Remember: the time you feel lonely is the time you most need to be by yourself. Life's cruelest irony." -Douglas Coupland
We live in a time of unprecedented connectivity. We have the ability to talk to almost anybody on the face of the planet with the click of a few buttons. We can stream an infinite amount of information to our computers and phones. We can purchase any service or product that our hearts desire. Yet, despite there being over 7.7 billion people on this little space rock, we have never been more alone as a species. Suicide rates are at an all time high. More and more people die alone each year. Loneliness has become a world-wide epidemic. What is the cause of this disconnect? Why is our society suffering such a colossal loss of human togetherness? Let's take a look.
While there is no silver bullet, there seems to be a silver colored (pun intended) theme behind why we are so lonely. The commoditization of human interaction. There was a time, not long ago, when people dealt directly with other people for the majority of their needs and services. Your grandparents most likely knew their butcher, their local politician, and all of their neighbors. Small business owners developed relationships with their customers, knew them by name, took special care of their needs, and even invited them to social gatherings. And inversely, customers took an express interest in the people and businesses that they patronized. . There was a symbiosis.
Now, most of our essential human interactions have become transactional in nature instead of interpersonal. We buy our groceries from multi-billion dollar corporations. We purchase health insurance from soul-less conglomerates. We order everything off-line. No human interaction necessary. We buy one another's time as if life is measured in units. And when we don't get what we want, we shift our consumer loyalty. While many of us shop locally and barter whenever we can, the trend has moved so far in the direction of a corporate dominated society that no one can deny the truth. And while convenience and cheaper products are both enticing goals, we must take a closer look at who is actually paying the price. We are, and that price is loneliness.
This post is not meant to make us feel bad as "rich" Americans, but the reality is that most of the machinery that produces our cheap food and goods and services rides on the backs of billions of marginalized people. Your new iPhone is made in China by poor factory workers, your organic spinach is picked in California by Mexican migrant workers, and your customers service calls are answered by low class Indian desk workers. Despite their grueling living conditions, most of these workers appear to be quite happy, at least for now. Most live in communities of other workers. Sometimes multiple families share a home. They depend on one another for child-rearing, daily tasks, and basic survival. Yet, they work to support the giant beast of Western consumerism that they, ironically, hope to become some day.
As bleak as this situation sounds, hope is found simply in one place. In ourselves and in our personal connections with others. We must take a long hard look at our lives and ask ourselves, "Are the bells and whistles that we are striving for (the new car, the new house, the new TV, etc) really worth the time we are sacrificing to earn the necessary money?" For 99.9% of human existence we were nomads. We possessed only what we could carry around on our backs. More stuff and more convenience equals less human interaction and more debt. These things are not going to make us happier.
I suggest that we start with what is in front of us. Look at how you spend the majority of your waking hours. How often do you feel alone, even when in the room with others? Do you know the people who grow your food or take care of your health? Would you ever invite them over for tea or dinner? In the last 50 years the average number of house parties that Americans hosted has been cut in half. Maybe we should have more people over to our homes. If you are in a religious group or a strong work group, that is a good place to start. Go next door and talk to your neighbor. Talk to your mail person. Find a farmer's market to support. Invite others to work out with you. Found a book group or a gaming group. There are so many ways to start being more interconnected and less lonely. We just have to be courageous enough share ourselves with others.