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The Isolationist Apocalypse Arrives
Surveying the Frightening Evidence and Embracing the Solutions (Vol. 3; Issue 43)
Until the Covid pandemic, I enjoyed a small but meaningful community at a local gym. Any number of different men—of varied ages, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations—engaged in friendly conversation. A real “man-about-town,” George, a former NBC executive, organized occasional get-togethers at a local bar for a happy hour. It made for an engaging gym experience, a respite from the boredom of improving health, the vanity of delaying aging, and the challenges to self-image resulting from seeing so many younger, tauter, well-toned bodies. Because of the pandemic, I stopped going there in March 2019.
Since I returned in March 2023, the entire atmosphere has changed—and none of it relates to the Covid epidemic. Yes, the floors are constantly mopped, the showers continuously cleaned, and surfaces sanitized.
But everyone, and I mean everyone, seems so alone.
Every single person—and I rarely see even one exception—is metaphorically mainlining on their headphones, headsets, and earbuds. When I dare to initiate conversation, or ask if I can use a particular machine, I’m always interrupting. The other party is either listening to a podcast, chatting with a digital friend, or self-occupied in some way.
Alexandra Schwartz, in her 2018 article titled, Improving Ourselves to Death, writes of how:
the general anxiety around the degradation of American democracy makes it hard to get much done. That’s O.K., though, because instead you’re going to “set goals,” in the terminology of the productivity guru Tim Ferriss—preferably ones that are measurable and have timelines, so you can keep track of your success. Apps like Lifetick or Joe’s Goals will help by keeping you organized and allowing you to share your progress on social media; a little gloating does wonders for self-motivation (unless, of course, one of your goals is to spend less time on social media). Once your goals are in place, it might be smart to design a methodology that will encourage you to accomplish them.
These goals represent a pathetic, unsurpassed, and unprecedented degree of self-involvement. And we thought Lasch’s 1991 book, The Culture of Narcissism, was hyperbolic. Oh, boy, did he ever underestimate where American culture was headed. G-d forbid we face a national emergency—and who could argue that we’re not in one now. Americans by the millions would crane their necks, screamingly scrolling through their cell phones, ingesting news. We’d all look like junkies sticking needles into our forearms.
Community is gone, vanished, deleted.
Ours is, indeed, a pathetically self-absorbed age.
Those famous lines from Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem seem more relevant than ever. He begins:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked.
He was talking about the Beat generation of the 50s, lost in addictions to drugs and alcohol. He might as well have been discussing loneliness. Ginsberg continues to describe individuals:
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burn-
ing their money in wastebaskets and listening
to the Terror through the wall.
Isn’t that precisely what we phone-addiction, social media compulsives, do in the 2020s? My editor and friend, Andrea, insists I become “less negative.” She’s correct, and ergo I turn post haste to solutions to the isolationist apocalypse already upon us.
Here’s a few simple and incredibly obvious ideas:
Join a club, find a hiking meet-up group, ask an acquaintance to lunch, do anything that counters the narcissism spreading like a virus beyond Lasch’s worst nightmares. We’re hooked on isolation, like addicts. And, just like those recovering from the range of compulsions from excessive eating to shopping to alcoholism, we too need to face into the kind of social discomfort that, well, is exceedingly normal. Neighborhoods, ranging from the impoverished to the wealthy, usually have neighborhood organizations. That’s an excellent way to get involved with people who you live near and, therefore, could develop closer relations with.
If you’re in a courageous mood, initiate a conversation with a stranger—in the gym, on the street, in your office, or in your own home. Swivel your heads away from your mobile phone engrossment. Yes, it will feel awkward. One of the few places where the psychoanalytic and the cognitive-behavioral (CBT) therapies meet is in the realm of exposure. It’s a major cause of burnout among long-term psychotherapists like me. Why? Because you spend your days nudging people to consider and feel precisely what makes them feel uncomfortable. These days, given the epidemic of loneliness, we all need to to feel much more of that incredibly common social discomfort so we can once again feel OK in relating to others.
One can find a balance between individualism and collectivism, but it ain’t easy. The happiest week of my life was in the 1980s when I participated in the blockade of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. I found some of my late-teenage, budding individuality in the anti-nuclear movement; gathering with hundreds of other similarly interested persons in San Luis Obispo county proved enormously meaningful. It was Yin and Yang, where subjectivity and community meet.
Imagine how any one of these actions might ignite a change of feeling in yourself and those around you? You know social isolation must be bad if the US Surgeon General writes an entire book (easily searchable online) on the epidemic. Shockingly, the author, Vivek H. Murthy, writes in the table of contents:
What is Social Connection?
Who could’ve imagined the US’s Surgeon General even needs to ask the question? Or, to write an entire book on the topic?
Andrea, my dear friend, I hear you.
You, me, and all we know and love need to reach out more, call that “distant” friend from years ago. Set up an actual meeting to drink coffee, quaff beer, sip tea, or smoke joints. It’s the world’s most conspicuous antidote. Junger’s (2016) excellent book, Tribe, recommends we humans need three things: A sense of purpose, a feeling of competency, and a community. As noted above, we global narcissists emphasize the first two while forgetting the last one. It is, arguably, the most important of the three.
If you really want to go radical, ask out a complete stranger for a talk.
Remember when you did that last? High school? College?
Later in the sad medical text, Murthy recommends investing in:
A culture of connection [which] rests on core values of kindness, respect, service, and commitment to one another. Everyone contributes to the collective culture of social connection by regularly practicing these values. Advancing this culture requires individuals and leaders to seek opportunities to do so in public and private dialogue, schools, workplaces, and in the forces that shape our society like media and entertainment, among others. Behaviors are both learned from and reinforced by the groups we participate in and the communities we are a part of. Thus, the more we observe others practicing these values, the more they will be reinforced in us.
Time to step away from the digital screen and engage with other living, breathing humans.
You can do it.
It won’t hurt.
No stranger to loneliness herself, Emily Dickinson’s (1864/1929) poem offers hope when she writes:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
I shall not live in vain.
Her point? Developing a circle of friends, joining a worshiping community, telephoning old friends—these will touch those around you as much as these actions will help you.
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And check out my new book, Lover, Exorcist, Critic: Understanding Depth Psychotherapy, available on Amazon.
Dickinson, E. (1929). “If I can stop one heart from breaking.” In Further Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. (Original poem published in 1864).
Ginsberg, A. (1956). Howl. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Junger, S. (2016). Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. New York: Twelve Publishing.
Lasch, C. (1991). The Culture of Narcissism. New York: Norton.
Murthy, V. (2023). The Epidemic of Loneliness. Washington, DC: US Publications.
Schwartz, A. (2018). Improving ourselves to death. New Yorker, January 8, 2018.