Sinking Islands

Long before John Donne wisely observed that “no man is an island”, God Himself weighed in, pointing out in the book of Genesis that “it is not good for man to be alone.” It only takes a cursory look around us to acknowledge the truth that we all intuitively understand: we are made to live in community with each other, and when those relationships break down, so does everything else.

Isolation. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s the worst punishment our prison system has to wield; the threat of weeks in solitary confinement has brought hardened murderers to heel in terror. In POW camps, it has transformed strong soldiers into mumbling shadows of their former selves. In extreme cases, unrelieved isolation has allowed an individual’s slight quirkiness to bloom into violent madness, reaching its tendrils into the connected world through mailbox bombs or assassinations. There’s a reason the word “hermit” is rarely uttered without the accompanying adjective “crazy”. Isolation from our fellows tears away the stakes and ties that keep us growing in a healthy direction, and leaves our untethered mind to twist upon itself. The shapes it makes in that darkness are sometimes very gruesome indeed.

It’s ironic that, in this age of unparalleled technological connectivity, we are experiencing more social isolation than perhaps any generation in history. A hundred years ago, isolation was primarily a function of physical separation. As people moved around the nation and left family or friends behind, communication relied on letters and phone calls, and weeks or months could pass without word from loved ones. People drawn to remote locations by opportunities like the mining or lumber industries had to accept isolation as an unavoidable reality. Now, though, we have the technology to communicate with almost anyone anywhere in the world instantly through internet and cell phone networks. We can talk to our active duty soldiers in the field or hear from vloggers charting the course of a distant revolution in real time. We can video chat with grandparents three times zones away, play cooperative video games with players on another continent, and research our genealogy with a drop of blood and an international database. Our most fleeting thoughts can reach thousands of social media followers at once. And yet, despite having all these communication tools at our fingertips, more than 80% of young people under age 18 say they are plagued by loneliness. In fact, close to half of all adults across all age groups report frequent feelings of disconnection and isolation.

The problem is not just an emotional one, either. Persistent loneliness can have a detrimental effect on our physical health, too. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia, anxiety, depression, and premature death. Mathematically, the mortality risk of continual isolation is similar to that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Yikes.

So what’s happening to us? How, in this age of constant communication, are we failing each other so badly?

Some of it is, I suspect, a result of the increasing social stratification of a human race that seems enamored of categorizing and labeling ourselves and each other according to an ever growing array of factors: skin color, sex, faith, political allegiance, parenting style, vaccination status, nationality, opinions, privilege, physical ability, body type, hairstyle, sports team, pronouns, favorite ice cream flavor—who knows? Nothing is too small, it seems, to spark another splinter group, and it’s distressingly common now to see our fellow humans throwing away lifelong friendships or going “no contact” with family members over differences in just about any area imaginable.

And maybe this is my Gen-X-ness talking, but I just don’t find online socializing to be an adequate substitute for face-to-face togetherness. Even FaceTime can’t capture the camaraderie and bonding of sharing a platter of hot wings at the same table or the warm comfort of really settling into a shared couch to dish about life for a few hours with your best friend. Trust the generation that had to gather at the mall or chill out in the Dairy Queen parking lot just to hang with friends, nothing can replace seeing each other’s faces when that joke hits just right or that one song comes on the radio and you all just have to sing along. I’m constantly urging (nagging) my Gen Z kids to go out and meet their people in meatspace. Reality. Accept no substitutes.

Anyway, I’m no expert, and I don’t know all the whys of the current loneliness epidemic, but I do have a few suggestions for trying to treat it. They’re simple things that anyone can do, but I admit that they might seem a little old-fashioned to the fully modern man. Let’s call them vintage or retro, and I’m sure they’ll be trending on TikTok in no time!

1. Get a pen pal. No, not someone you forward memes to or share Snapchats with—I’m talking about an honest-to-goodness correspondent with whom you exchange letters, written with ink on paper and mailed in an envelope with stamps. I have two pen pals—one in Australia and one in Peru—with whom I’ve been corresponding for years. We send letters, sometimes photos, occasionally stickers. I even went full Jane Austen and sealed my last letter to my Australian friend with a wax seal! How’s that for fancy? There’s something thoughtful and weighty about sending written letters. You find yourself digging deeper into your feelings and memories when you’re writing them out longhand, and when you hold that envelope in your hand, ready to mail, there’s a sense that it’s an actual piece of you, gifted from your heart and received with the same open spirit. Waiting for the reply paints the background of your days with a pleasant, mild anticipation. The window that opens between your very different lives is one that will stay open and enrich you both with the buzz of shared communion.

2. Meet your neighbors. In the “olden days” (also known as the 70s), people in most neighborhoods used to be all up in each other’s lives, and they liked it like that. Sure, Mrs. Lind on the corner was a bit of a busybody, but the benefits of knowing your neighbors far outweighed the occasional irritations. If you went on vacation, a neighbor would feed your dog and bring in your mail. When you were sick, neighbors showed up with chicken soup and took your kids over to their house to play so you could rest. You could walk up and down the street in the summer twilight and chat with people sitting out on their porches watching the fireflies come out. Neighborhood barbecues and block parties were regular occurrences. And if, God forbid, disaster struck, you had a group of trusted friends nearby to call on for reinforcements. 

Here in the 2020s, most of us huddle inside our houses when we’re home, living out our parallel but never-intersecting lives, knowing our neighbors enough to wave at, perhaps, but not much more. It doesn’t have to be that way, though! You may not bring back the all-neighborhood barbecue extravaganza, but what’s stopping you from filling a plate with cookies and taking it to the neighbor next door to you? Or inviting them over for dinner? Do they have a trip coming up? You can be the one to volunteer for mail duty. Do they live alone? Ask them if they’d like to join you on your porch for a lemonade and a chin wag (that’s what they used to call chatting in the olden days.) You probably have an elderly neighbor who could use your help clearing snow or cleaning gutters, who would love nothing more than someone to tell their stories to. The world has largely dismissed these relationships as too much trouble, but trust me—they pay off in rich rewards, for both your cookie jar and your soul.

3. Step away from the screen. Sure, the internet gives you 24 hour access to exercise classes, DIY tutorials, and mommy groups a million members strong, but do you know what is even better? Leaving the house. Join that exercise class in person, and ask the potential friend sweating next to you to grab a healthy smoothie afterwards. Head to the hardware store and get in-person help with that tricky home repair. Join up with local moms on the playground to chat while the kids shake their sillies out. It takes more effort, yes, but professional wisdom says we create deeper and more meaningful connections to each other without a screen between us and our fellow humans. Body language and facial expressions convey whole worlds of meaning not touched on by text. Video conferencing can help bridge that gap a little, but nothing conveys a sense of presence like, well, being present. Physically sharing the same space with a friend communicates openness, vulnerability, and focused attention in a way that is rarely found in virtual interactions. And try to resist checking your phone while you’re with people. Practice being fully in the moment, and see how it grows your friendships.

4. Toughen up a little. Don’t get me wrong here; I applaud the modern push to be more thoughtful and aware of how our words and actions can affect others. Kindness is always a worthy goal. This advice, though, is for you as a recipient of the words and actions of others. Let some stuff go, man. People are messy and colorful and rough in all the wrong places sometimes. If someone is not deliberately trying to hurt your feelings, one of the best things you can do for your own mental health—and for your relationships—is to cultivate a little inner armor. If a comment can be taken in more than one way, choose the most generous interpretation. Let people have an off day once in a while. This doesn’t mean putting up with abuse or not addressing habits that create real issues in your relationships. But don’t be quick to throw friendships or family members away over things that could, with a little effort, be talked out.  The internet may make it feel like there is an infinite number of people out there ready to step into the void created by a lost friend, but those alliances, with their history of mutual service and deep conversations and shared experiences, are not disposable. New relationships can’t be plucked from the rack like a t-shirt at Walmart. They’re worth fighting to preserve, and overlooking each other’s slightly unpolished edges is part of the deal.

I don’t know what shape the future is going to take. Technology is advancing exponentially, in completely new directions, and I suspect that the world of thirty years from now would boggle the minds of all of us scrolling Instagram back here in 2023. But I do know that some things don’t change. People will always need to live in community and have relationships with other people to live full and healthy lives, no matter how deeply technology intertwines with our daily routines. I just hope that somehow, in the midst of the constant relentless static that is the Information Age, we all figure out how to hold on to the most important parts of what it means to be humans together—before the sweeping isolation of modern life claims more from us than we can afford to give.

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