The Politics of Loneliness – The Good Men Project[ad_1]
A funny thing happened to me halfway through the world pandemic shutdown. I suddenly felt no longer lonely. Several years before unforeseen circumstances forced me to leave my beloved California and move back to rural Central New York to live with my sister. My only other option at the time was to remain in California and become homeless.
Time passed, opportunities to move on with my life did not materialize, despite my persistent efforts to move on. Eventually I moved into low-income senior housing in Cortland, NY. The longer I stayed there and the more I tried to gain traction locally—attending social events, joining clubs, auditing courses at the local college, volunteering here and there–the deeper my sense of social isolation and loneliness grew. I didn’t turn to far-right cults online, as many did. Nor did I commit suicide, as many others did. However, I certainly did contemplate it frequently.
The human being is a social animal. Our biology hardwires us to not just desire, but to need to be with our fellow humans. This is so self-evident that most people don’t even think about it. In America, people who prefer solitude are viewed as suspiciously odd and to be pitied. People who find themselves without friends, not by choice but by circumstances beyond their control, often endure loneliness. Loneliness is epidemic among older Americans. As we outlive our circle of friends we are confronted with the prejudices of our youth-oriented culture—that old people are a nonproductive burden on society and are an embarrassment to be shunned. When I began auditing courses at the local college I noticed many students kept their distance, apparently terrified of being infected with my “old age cooties.”
The problem of loneliness among us aging queers is an even more common problem. Most of us do not have offspring to help take care of us, some of us have ended up poor due to job discrimination in our younger years (this was much more common for the pre-Stonewall generation), and homophobia continues to ambush us. Many older queers go back in the closet, for example, to avoid mistreatment in nursing homes. Not all of us are rich enough and lucky enough to retire to Fort Lauderdale or Palm Springs and cocoon ourselves in gayborhoods reminiscent of our younger days.
A guest essay recently published in the New York Times asks, “If loneliness is an epidemic, how do we treat it?” The authors, Eleanor Cummins and Andrew Zaleski, define the problem: currently 20% of American adults report they feel lonely or socially isolated. The authors identify the causes as a communal failure that requires the sufferer to take responsibility to abate. They include the usual advice to exercise, socialize, ask for and give help, take time to have fun, and foster an attitude of gratitude. As when dealing with alcoholism, such practices will rewire the brain.
However, the authors point out contradictorily that a sense of loneliness may be the result of a move to a new place (where you embark on a new life without friends), ongoing grieving, faulty coping skills, or a “natural disposition to gloom.” Whatever the cause, the traditional remedies may be of no use. And, as the authors point out, medicalizing loneliness as a mental disorder invites treatment with psych meds. Antidepressants alleviate depression, other drugs counteract ADHD, and lobotomies end “female hysteria.” However, permanently changing a person’s personality with drugs remains a dystopian taboo.
The authors describe loneliness as I have personally experienced it. It is a subjective feeling of distress over a perceived lack of social connection. I have deeply felt that—an “emotion cluster” of anger, resentment, sorrow, jealousy, shame, and self-pity. Without friends to get together with and be drawn out of myself this became a self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling prophecy. I was angry and resentful at others for not becoming my friend—I felt they had judged me and rejected me. I was, and am, haunted by a feeling of sadness. I am sad because people are thoughtlessly cruel. I am sad because life, as Buddhists believe, is pain. (While suffering may be optional, it takes a lot of spiritual practice to let go. There is comfort to be found in wrapping myself in familiar emotions.)
At the same time I was jealous of other people—”everybody.” They all have friends. Those who want a life partner all seem to have one. They all appear happy successes in life. Hanging out on Facebook only deepens this impression.
Shame kept me from attending public gatherings, especially live theater and concerts, where everyone would see I was there by myself. The only place I felt safe was in a movie theater, where we all sit in the dark. And when I really wanted to savor the pain of my pathetic state of affairs, I sought relief, contradictorily, by wallowing in self-pity. The shame of having no friends prevented me from reaching out and sharing this with anyone. After all, to be vulnerable is to open oneself to attack. Key to the feeling of loneliness is that the sadness is coupled with a “palpable sense of danger.”
I am one of those people who have a natural disposition of gloom and sadness. Depressive disorder runs in my family. I only learned this later when a psychiatrist diagnosed me with clinical depression and told me I had probably been depressed my entire life. For my parents’ generation depression was a dirty, shameful secret and a personal failing. Growing up I was always drawn to pop songs about loneliness—romantic breakups, heartache, a longing for better times long gone. “Mr. Lonely” by Bobby Vinton, “All by Myself” by Nilsson, and “Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkin exactly matched how life felt to me. How much of that was an intuitive understanding of the life likely awaiting me as I became aware of my homosexuality and the stigma of being a member of a despised minority, a social outcast, is hard to say.
Years ago, John Berger pointed out that social envy is a modern phenomenon. In societies where social mobility did not exist people tended to accept their place in the social order. Karl Marx famously exhorted workers of the world to unite–they have nothing to lose but their chains. The American Dream used to tell the world every boy (and now, girl) can grow up and become President; you can get yourself out of poverty by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps; every immigrant is welcome to come to our shores to pursue the American Dream.
But nowadays structural racism, misogyny, homophobia, and class warfare (make no mistake about it—the rich are increasingly open about their war on the poor and the middle classes) are denied by hate-mongering conspiracy theorists, concocting ever more absurd explanations to justify their hate and to deny the haters’ complicity in their own social envy. But social equality is not a pie with limited resources that we “inferior others” are robbing from the disadvantaged on the far right.
So what does all that have to do with our current epidemic of loneliness? Modern man in mass society has been alienated by work that drew people out of their villages to the jobs in cities. Impersonal work has removed the individual’s connection to their work. The sense of community and common cause has continued to decline. The decline in community, in being united through common goals (civic, spiritual, charitable) has been documented and lamented by numerous writers, among them Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone), Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death), Stephen Macido (Democracy at Risk), Quentin Kidd (Civic Participation in America), and Anne Applebaum (Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Allure of Authoritarianism).
The proliferation of 24-hour cable news channels has dissolved national consensus on shared basic values. The rise of “alternate reality” and “fake news” leaves many people increasingly mistrustful. The triumph of social media has further increased the sense of isolation, the propagation of the perception that other people are better off than we are. Many have lost the ability to think critically.
In today’s climate of political and social polarization, it’s not just loners and lost souls who have been “radicalized” by reading radical right websites that prey upon readers’ feelings of loneliness and alienation. Having lost the ability to think critically, the new minted haters are then directed to retaliate against those perceived for causing any and every injustice, social slight or disadvantage the hater has been encouraged to now take personally. Cummins and Zaleski would identity this as “counterproductive coping mechanisms” which produce a sense of loneliness. The Internet has filled the gap left by the missing deep connections with simulated intimacy and virtual connection.
“Our relentless commercialism,” Perry Brass observes, “works so hard to keep [us] isolated from [our real selves].” Just as shopping briefly fills the vacuum left by the fetish of consumer consumption, so social media has filled the vacuum left by the removal of common purpose, shared values, and meaningful relationships. No wonder so many find authoritarianism, the immersion in group think where the leader does the thinking for them, so appealing.
Alexis De Tocqueville, the insightful observer of democracy in early America, admired American individualism but “warned that a society of individuals can easily become atomized and paradoxically uniform when ‘every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd.’” Ralph Waldo Emerson, the noted American Transcendentalist, espoused an antidote to this danger. In “Self-Reliance” he asserted the importance of people thinking for themselves. “People must believe their own intuition and reject the opinions of others in order to transcend the bounds of the physical world.”
This is a tall order in a society that worships Moloch (the false god of materialism), and where the largest religious denomination promotes hatred and violence as a substitute for spiritual practice. In the face of their individual and collective powerlessness, a dangerous political radical right has grown exponentially, turning their anger and resentment into a cultural war, seeking to otherize and punish perceived enemies they choose to hold responsible for their own sense of alienation, isolation, and loneliness. But, as a meme on Facebook phrased it, “None of your problems is because someone is on welfare.”
And finally, another source of loneliness is grief. Each person grieves in their own way. Some withdraw into their loneliness. Some refuse to acknowledge it and bury it under denial, so that it comes out in other ways. Some lash out in anger. There is no timetable for grief. Some eventually get past it or “get over it.” And some find themselves grieving for the rest of their lives.
In the early months of the shutdown talk about “the new normal” awaiting us focused on the pandemic ending. Now that we are out of the shutdown and the pandemic is quickly fading into the fog of the past, the new normal is anything but normal. The culture wars have gotten uglier and more dangerous. The threat of American democracy ending and authoritarianism taking its place looms more and more possible. Climate change has become undeniable as heat rises to record-breaking levels day after day, ever larger forest fires rage out of control, Putin’s genocidal war on Ukraine grinds on, and counterfactual narratives scramble to offer ever more outlandish explanations to deny reality. “The more people withdraw from society, from life itself,” as the book Alcoholics Anonymous describes the plight of the active alcoholic, some of them “sought out sordid places, hoping to find understanding companionship and approval. Momentarily we did—then would come oblivion and the awful awakening to face the hideous Four Horsemen—Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, Despair.” Is this not the state so many people find themselves in today?
In my case, when the pandemic shutdown began I was forced to disconnect, and was able to decathect, from everyone and everywhere that seemed to be feeding my own subjective sense of invisibility and loneliness. I stopped putting myself into rooms full of people where I felt completely all alone. The negative feedback loop in my mind played itself out with nothing to feed it, and I began to feel peace. I discovered I had incomplete grief work, grieving over losses I had thought I was over years before—the death of most of my friends, the people I expected to grow old with, from AIDS, my own survivor guilt over outliving all those friends while living with HIV/AIDS myself, the loss of my marriage, my career, and my home in my beloved California.
I finally came to the end of that grieving. And I removed myself from Cortland. I have set upon a new journey in Syracuse, the place of my birth. Freed from all that emotional and psychological baggage I feel my soul and spirit have been reset to start anew. As I embark on this new path, I find myself happy and frequently filled with joy, experiences I had never had during the ten years I lived in Cortland. Something profound but subtle had shifted within me. Now, even though I am still often alone, I feel connected. I know I am not alone and never really was. Of course, this is all subjective perception. I had no conscious control over making it happen and explain it as serendipity. As Cummins and Zaleski conclude, “’It’s a choice to remain lonely or not lonely … Loneliness doesn’t have to be a permanent state.” Or does it?
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