There is an epidemic of loneliness unfolding the values of the American people that Facebook—in all its promise to connect—can not eradicate. People are craving something more profound than a thumbs up or a digital heart. People are yearning for deep and meaningful connections and not finding them. They are dying (yes, dying) for people to really know them– down to their poor organizational skills and the stretch-marked bellies—and still be loved. And Wal-Mart is no different, selling everything from lipstick to plastic trucks, but not love intimacy and connection.
Loneliness is defined as the subjective feeling of social disconnection, and it feels like being ostracized to the pits of hell.
Have you ever met a puppy? Humans are a lot like puppies. We crave a pack of other humans to roll around with, play games alongside, hunt in unison with and snuggle up to in a warm den. This is not something we just want, but something we need. Fundamentally, we are social animals down to our cellular nature; we possess the herd mentality, following each other off of cliffs or back to safety; but we are living like cats.
We have been bottle-fed the idea of individualism, ‘just be YOU,’ and are high on the delusion; we have created and centered lives around ourselves—me, myself, and I. We buy compact sedans, park them in front of one-bedroom apartments, heat single-serve T.V dinners flavored with sugar, and check Facebook profiles, all while wishing someone was there to scratch our back. We’d scratch back, wouldn’t we? With the rise of selfie-sticks, though, it’s a gamble.
Roll the dice.
I had a water leak, and my entire bedroom was flooded. I knew what I needed. I needed a shop vac, so I ran to the neighbor’s house and pleaded for one. He graciously offered his and using it, I was able to save the wood floor from damage. I returned the shop vac and the next day bought my own. I would never need to ask my neighbor to borrow his again. I no longer needed him, and he had never needed me. I was self-reliant—and alone—again.
This all too common story paired with our being reared on a fantasy form of love, especially romantic love, has proven corrosive to connection. Articles instruct us on how to annex family members who support political candidates we don’t; columns proliferate on how to remove ‘toxic‘ people from our friend’s list; and tease us with ten ways to spot Mr. Perfect. All this in a time when we need advice on how to tolerate differences, cultivate deeper friendships, and how we can be better lovers.
I mentioned dying earlier, casually, but death is serious. And loneliness—experienced in the same part of the brain as physical pain—kills. Lonely people are sicker and die sooner than their connected counterparts.
Not only are we disconnected from each other, but the very planet itself. We tune thermostats to our desired temperature level by a single degree for maximum comfort, while new cars offer different temperature sets for each passenger. We are unaware of what time the sun rose, when it will set and how giant chunks of ice float down the Mississippi river. We do not know the names of the plants around us or the dwindling bird species dying in the American skies. They’re dying because of pollution, habitat destruction, and the other ecological costs of our caving from the natural world into simulated worlds on screens.
Disconnected from nature—and each other—our gaze is tuned to hardware and software. We are turning us into cyborgs, lost without G.P.S., incapable of deviating from its commands, nearly driving off mountainsides or even into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean because the voice rattling from the android said, TURN LEFT.
The dishwasher was supposed to give us more time to sit at the dinner table and chat, but with the advent of technology, our productivity levels have only increased until entire days have been mapped out in thirty-minute segments. Segments demanding militarized attention, any divergence from task penalized with lost wages, frustration, and anxiety: Alarm sounds, chug coffee, 1,234 emails, another deadline, Suzie’s teacher calls, Suzie’s sick…
Aside from our timetables, technology is strangling us from each other and the planet. Even when we steal back the time to sit down and pour open our hearts, the people we talk to often don’t understand us. Because, unlike much of human history, our grievances are rarely shared. When tragedy struck, people in small banded groups mourned in shared grief for much of our past.
This is not to dispute that some grief is still shared– tragedies occurring in family groups, other pseudo-family packs, or even on large scales when society suffers the same fate, such as the COVID-19 pandemic which is crippling much of global society.
Internal turmoil creates the main ingredient for loneliness–the feeling of being cut- off. If one is experiencing hidden sadness, they cannot connect. To connect on a deep level, one must roll over and reveal. But rolling over and revealing to people who do not know the story gets old and makes us feel more isolated.
Beyond grief tucked in the visceral layers of our belly fat, due to the echo chambers most of us live in, we no longer share a basic reality with most of the people around us—not even our closest friends and lovers. People used to gather around campfires and tell the same story, pass them down, cherishing them as a collective origin story. These groups shared a fundamental reality. Fast forward to today, and that is no longer the case. Today, thanks to social media-induced bubbles, we exist in personal realities. We have trouble understanding each other on a primary level, each of us mindlessly plugged into our own Twitter feed, satiating on a steady diet of ‘information’ specific only to us.
No wonder we are lonely. And loneliness is devastating. It is the penny dropped into the bottomless well. It is the infant monkey who forsakes food to pretend a wire monkey with a cloth is mama. Only, our wire monkey is more time spent scrolling on Facebook, and Snapchat. More time clocked in, substituting the status of friend for hard worker.
We can turn off the device; clock out, and return to our roots. We can sign out and connect to real people, without expecting them to be perfect, any more than they should expect perfection from us. We are all flawed and have all fallen from glory. This is certainly not a siren call to accept blatant abuse from people, just to have someone around. The adage: If you don’t get love from a spoon, you learn to lick it off knives, comes to mind. But just as licking knives can be dangerous, there is a risk in labeling everything another person may do that lacks supremacy as ‘toxic.‘
We can learn to lean into the vulnerability of needing others and allow others to need us. It is the glue that binds us to the other adage: I will scratch your back if you scratch mine and scratch, even the hairy backs. We can learn to love so radically that the people we love wonder why and let them love us, equally, in return. We can remember that love is a verb; it is work. It’s possible to trade selfie- sticks for group photos, relinquishing filters. We can just smile.
We can eliminate superficial conversations that circle tirelessly in endless, mindless discussions about the weather or generic pleasantries and instead grip the root of another’s heart, rolling over for the belly rubs, belly fat, and all. No, not for every Tom, Dick, or Samantha. After all, discernment is a tool, but we can unwrap for those who prove to be a safe place to unfold.
We can choose people and the natural world over more shoes in the closet and money in the bank. Material items—the wire monkey—are not genuine substitutes for warmth. Of course, most people are not working for an extra spare bedroom to decorate from the latest Town and Country, but rather to pay medical bills. The state of the wealth gap in America today is obscene. For those not living paycheck to paycheck, simply toiling away for another trip to Disney World can also learn from taking time to pause; by taking a deep breath. Children thrive on time with caregivers, not trips to a land of fantasy built on plastic–plastic destined for landfills.We need a return to each other and the natural world. And we need to reinvent what it means to be the social animal that we are–not perfect kids, mothers, brothers, and lovers–but an embracing of our shared imperfections and the grievances that reside, privately, in the corridors of our hearts. We must open those heart spaces and listen to each other, listening for the echoes in their—our—stories, reaching for a—our—universal story.