What’s Making Us Lonely?

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People all around the world are finding themselves more lonely than ever. For a lot of reasons, we humans are growing apart and it’s killing some of us. What is behind the surge in loneliness? What can we do to be less lonely?

How we got here

Early humans didn’t live in such a crowded world. They lived in small groups that could more easily find food and resources in a manageable area. When they moved, they moved as a group. They might have meetups with other traveling groups or host single travelers moving through, in exchange for trade and news.

Humanity gradually got more organized around agriculture, formal religion and government.   People eventually gravitated to where resources were more plentiful, and found that it was more crowded than some village in the country. They suddenly didn’t know everyone around them, but they made it work. Their neighborhoods became their “villages” and they got to know folks that sat on the porches or played in the streets.

As industrialization gave humans more stuff, some got moving again, away from the old neighborhoods and increasingly to places with walls, guards, and draperies that stay closed all the time. Air conditioning replaced the porch and the casual visiting of the old neighborhood did not come out to the new places.

Social gatherings were eased out in favor of homeowner associations and school booster clubs, where groups competed for influence. Churches became political, not safe havens to contemplate eternity and share fellowship.

Civilization itself has not been kind to humans, but we kept adapting, because at some level, we were still talking to other people and it was real sometimes.

Unreality and technology

With the widespread adoption of television, we civilized people got a compelling new set of people who could tell us how we should live.  They modeled all the best clothes, cars, houses and foods, while staying impossibly thin and fit.  We wanted to be like them.  We bought magazines to help us worship the new role models.  And they never gave us feedback, but we forgave them.

The TV people kept us fascinated to the point where we talked to the real people in our lives less and less about real things.  We were too busy talking about getting more stuff and competing with someone’s looks to talk about feelings and hopes and plans.  And those around us were less likely to give feedback if we did.

The unreality became the real.  As we competed, we got things like computers and cell phones.  Whole new realms of unreality flung wide their doors to welcome us in.  Movies showed us what our thoughts looked like moving through the Internet.

Now we could call anyone, any time.  We could be called any time.  Once people who had mobile phones were obscenely wealthy, and had phones in the limo only.  But today there are more cell phones than people in the US.  Now we’re all too important.

So our friends and families can call us any time.  Our work can find us everywhere, days, nights, and weekends if they so desire.  In a hurry?  Text.  Keep it brief, OK?  I’ll get back to you.  We are more in touch than ever, but feel ever more out of touch.

I almost forgot the online communities.  Facebook looms large as a way to grab our attention without really giving us attention back.   If you read an article and leave a comment, some snide so-and-so will troll you for it.  You might also have people agree with you, though.  It takes a thick skin to tolerate comments sections.

Back to reality

At this point I want to stress that technology isn’t the problem.  Nor is city life, or suburban sprawl or empty churches.  These are conditions in which people live that have an impact on how we relate to one another, but they don’t cause loneliness.  We do that.

People choose to close the drapes, stay indoors and play video games.  They decide to stay out of groups and pursue their interests alone.  Each individual can choose what to believe and, based on that, whom to listen to and whom to shun.  Kids join cliques and gangs, conforming to the groups’ rules and treating nonmembers badly.  Adults do the same.

So basically, if we’re lonely, we are letting it happen to ourselves.  We don’t have to obey the TV, copy celebrities, get snarky online or isolate ourselves.  We have the power to choose what examples to follow.

There once was a show called “Friends” in which a bunch of same-aged adults lived close and supported one another.  It seems that generation adopted friends into tight tribes.  They weren’t close to their families, who lived far away.  So they made one from people they had close by.

Many people find their tribe members among fellow churchgoers, colleagues at work, other members of interest groups, clubs, teams or volunteer organizations.

I have friends I met at a crafts group.  Not everyone in that group is one of my friends, but some are.  We are there for one another, bringing dinner if someone’s ill, driving them to faraway doctors, getting up a carload to go to a fair.

As luck would have it, fiber crafts also hooked me up to a fabulous online group of people who are quite supportive and kind.  We share an appreciation for the works of a British satirist as well as for fiber arts.  Because we share a lot of values, we get along even if we disagree on some point or other.  And people are there for one another.

It doesn’t matter if your friends are reached online, by phone, by mail or in person.  It’s the quality of the relationship that matters.  But the only way I know to get those relationships is to start out with new acquaintances and spend time getting to know them.  In a group, not everyone will be special, but if you find a friend in the group, you’re ahead.  And if you can find one, maybe two isn’t out of the question.

So if you find yourself feeling lonely, find some people, get acquainted, and see who is up for give-and-take that makes a real relationship.  And share your thoughts in comments, if you like.

For ideas on where to find potential friends, read this.


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