The loneliness epidemic
I know few blissful marriages in the family. For one, my parents called it quits when I was 19, and no matter how society may feel about it, I don’t feel like it is my story to tell. I’ve known family members who have never been in a marriage and those who had been in one too many. Who knows on which side of the coin I’ll end up?
I once asked my mother if she knew of a family legend that tells of a witch who doomed us to such a fate. She said she’s not so sure. But yes, we do tend to live in isolation, gathering only as a family when the need arises. And that need rarely rose, by the way.
Also, I am an only child. For most of my life, I’ve lived in such loud silence, if that even makes sense. Ghosts have set up camp in the unused bedrooms at home, of that we’re sure. My mother and I have grown weary of the question we are invariably asked: “Doesn’t it get lonely?”
Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. Lonely is quite normal, for me at least. It is a generation of hugot, isn’t it?
Which is why I was unnerved when I learned that loneliness is now deemed an epidemic and a public health issue. Still, it’s not a surprise. Social media has made it easier for us to stay connected, and our smartphones have made sure that we don’t miss a thing. Nonetheless, “This is the age of loneliness,” writes Mark Easton of BBC.
Loneliness is not a strange concept for humanity. In the Hebrew Bible, God deemed it not good, and formed Eve out of Adam’s rib. It has become a universal and timeless language since then, humanity being a creation that feels very deeply. Plato and Aristotle philosophized loneliness as a problem of humankind. Friedrich Nietzsche measured a man’s worth based on the loneliness he can withstand. Nikolai Berdyaev believed we only become human during our moments of loneliness. William Shakespeare was the first to use the world “lonely” in Coriolanus. And Bobby Vinton sang that he was “Mr. Lonely” because he had “nobody to call [his] own.”
Today, loneliness has physical, economic and social consequences. Dr. Vivek Murthy says that loneliness is as perilous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and kills more than obesity does. It dampens productivity among employees and, according to Harvard, half of CEOs are lonely in their roles. More surprisingly, in a time of hundreds of Facebook contacts and thousands of Instagram followers, we are lucky to have few people in whom to confide. In a General Social Survey, a quarter of their respondents said they had none.
Viewing loneliness as an epidemic makes it easier to grasp a fundamental but undesirable aspect of human existence. John Cacioppo, who first coined the term “loneliness epidemic,” passed away a month ago. During his illustrious career, he likened loneliness to hunger and explained that love and social connections are what really matter in life.
An epidemic makes it seem like it is up to medical experts to find the solution. Or that it is the moral responsibility of the government. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness earlier this year.
Confining loneliness within the scope of an epidemic makes everyone a patient or a target, not agents for cure. That it is a public health risk is more appropriate, because truthfully we are each other’s medicine.
We cure this epidemic by building more genuine relationships, rather than creating false representations of ourselves online. We cure this by being more expressive of our feelings, rather than suppressing them for fear of judgment or rejection. We cure this by teaching millennials that it is okay to fail, and that there is no deadline for success. We cure this by simply acknowledging that we are each other’s responsibility. We don’t have to drag through life on our own.
Loneliness is a byproduct of the way we now live, as we have become sufficiently mobile to jump from one community to another, without tendering deep roots. And also, as we have become too mobile that our new social interactions are now on our phone screens. Our social fabric has come undone, and it is up to us to put it back together once more.
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