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The Pain of Modern Life: Loneliness and Isolation

Loneliness

Humanity is a group. As Mohandas Gandhi famously said: “All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family.” This is not a sycophantic religious concept, but the fact of our inherent nature. A nature that the current World socio-economic order systematically works against, forcing us to live in unnatural, unhealthy, un-fulfilling, and unjust ways.

The negative inter-related consequences of living under such a perverse system are many and varied – painful all: disharmony, depression, anxiety, and loneliness are some of the effects of the resulting dis-connect – with ourselves, with others, and with the natural environment.

An Epidemic

Loneliness, particularly in developed countries, has been growing year on year. John Cacioppo, author of ‘Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection’ relates that in the 1980s “scholars estimated 20% of people in the US felt lonely at any given time, now it’s thought to be over 40%”. Worldwide, according to Psychology Today, the numbers suffering from loneliness are at epidemic levels, and, with an aging population throughout the west, are expected to continue to rise.

The suffocating condition of loneliness is the consequence of feeling isolated, disconnected, and adrift, not of being alone. It is related to loss – of a loved one, of a childhood, of an undefined relationship with oneself. Mother Teresa, who worked with the poorest of the poor in India, said that, “loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” It is extremely painful, erodes trust, and according to Cacioppa can cause lonely people to “feel others around them are threats rather than sources of cooperation and compassion.”

Like many associated mental health illnesses, loneliness is stigmatized and seen, Cocioppo relates, as “the psychological equivalent of being a loser in life, or a weak person.” In a world where being tough, successful and ‘driven’ are championed, weakness (particularly in men) and other such inadequacies are frowned upon. As a result people deny loneliness, which is a mistake, as this suffocating condition can increase the risk of an early death by a staggering 45%, higher than both obesity and excessive alcohol consumption.

Materiality and division

Materialistic values characterise the present, all pervasive socio-economic model; governments of all political persuasions are the docile servants of the system, the partners of the corporations who run it. Together they form the contemporary elite. A contented, united and happy populace is the last thing they want. The ideal social unit for the benefit of the ‘Masters of the Universe’, as Adam Smith famously called them, is “you and your television set”, Noam Chomsky has said; in a world devoid of community spirit, where selfishness is encouraged, “If the kid next door is hungry, it's not your problem. If the retired couples next door invested their assets badly and are now starving, that's not your problem either.” Social unity and human compassion are the enemies of the elite and an unjust system, which promotes values of greed and indifference.

Such values divide and separate, creating the conditions in which loneliness is almost inevitable. Selfishness and accumulation are encouraged; individual ambition and the competitive spirit, which “destroys all feelings of human fraternity and cooperation,” Albert Einstein said, and “conceives of achievement not as derived from the love for productive and thoughtful work, but as springing from personal ambition and fear of rejection,” pervade and largely dominate all areas of life.

The universal need to feel connected is rooted in a sense of fragmentation, an underlying sense of loss – experienced as loneliness. If we felt complete, whole within ourselves, this perceived need, one assumes, would not be present.
If humanity is to progress towards a new and peaceful way of living, such values, which creating the conditions in which loneliness is almost inevitable, need to give way to other more positive ideals. Cooperation instead of competition for example, will cultivate tolerance and understanding where suspicion and selfishness prevail, allowing communities to come together, strengthening unity – a primary need of our troubled times.

Cry for help

The pain of loneliness, John Cacioppo maintains, is an “aversive signal for survival” in the same way as thirst or hunger is. It “is part of a biological machinery to alert you to the threat and damage to your social body,” which, he says, we need to survive. This is an instinctive reaction to being on the social periphery, and therefore in danger, perhaps not physically any more, but certainly psychologically. This sense of threat initiates an instinctive process of self-preservation and defensiveness, Caccioppo relates. The brain goes into a high alert state and releases increased levels of “morning cortisol – a powerful stress hormone,” that can lead to clumsy, intolerant reactions, which further strengthen social alienation.

A recent report into loneliness in Britain – particularly amongst elderly people – described the condition as “a modern ‘giant”. Shame, guilt and a sense of failure often accompany this psychological monster. The lonely ones feel they are somehow inadequate – not attractive, sufficiently interesting or successful enough for this ‘dog eats dog’ world. And despite the emphasis placed on achievement as the elixir of happiness and fulfilment, Psychology Today makes clear that “talent, financial success, fame, even adoration, offers no protection from the subjective experience [of loneliness].”

So what is the answer? A strong social network, purpose and structure, and supportive relationships are crucial, but do these address the underlying emptiness, which triggers the loneliness?

Relationship with Self

As is well documented, our sense of happiness and general wellbeing is more readily brought about when we feel connected, but what is it we long to connect with? The universal need to feel connected is rooted in a sense of fragmentation, an underlying sense of loss – experienced as loneliness. If we felt complete, whole within ourselves, this perceived need, one assumes, would not be present.

There is a school of thought that says the emptiness and isolation we experience is the result of not being in relationship with our true Self – that centre of peace, or some would say divine seed at the core of our being. That the ache we are constantly trying to quieten is caused by identifying with everything and anything other than the Self, and by constantly distracting ourselves with pleasure, which has to a large degree replaced happiness.

The great Indian teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti said that when we become aware “of loneliness, the pain of it, the extraordinary and fathomless fear of it, you seek an escape.” This would seem natural and understandable, but the distractions, which tend to be sensate in nature, do not, he maintained, bring an end to loneliness, rather they “lead you to misery and chaos”.

Indeed can the emptiness of loneliness be satiated by anything external to oneself? “If we have experienced and found one escape to be of no value, are not all other escapes therefore of no value?” Krishnamurti logically argued.

Silence and the space to look within are rare jewels in our World, particularly in western societies. The current socio-economic model is a noisy, poisonous system based on negative values; it has polluted the planet and is making us unhappy and ill in a variety of ways.

It is a system that ardently promotes material success and the indulgence of personal desires. All of which encourages dependence on methods of ‘escape’ of one kind or another – drugs (prescribed, legal and illegal), alcohol, sex, entertainments in all shapes and sizes – including organized religion, to fill the chasm of loneliness, and keep the mind in a constant state of agitation and discontent.

But as Krishnamurti suggests, such transient distractions will never sufficiently drown out our innate need for union with oneself, with the Self; a realization brought about by self-awareness; by negation – ceasing to identify with the fancies of the mind, and as the 19th century Indian sage Sri Ramana Maharshi taught, by constantly challenging ones thoughts and feelings with the deconstructive enquiry ‘who am I’.

These Men of Wisdom assure us that, with sustained commitment and effort, a relationship can be established with the Self, which reveals separation and isolation to be an illusion, and establishes a deep, non-dependent sense of unity – with others and the world in which ‘we live and breathe and have our being’. Purpose, contact with others and activity are essential to battle loneliness, but if one becomes dependent on these externals and does not, at the same time, seek to overcome the underlying cause then it seems clear little will have been achieved and this ‘modern giant’ will rise up again.


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