Against loneliness

Henry David Thoreau famously lamented that the majority of us “lead lives of quiet desperation” and harbour unconscious despair “under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”  Earlier this week a British Commission on Loneliness reported that loneliness annually costs the UK millions of lost working days, is more harmful than smoking or obesity and significantly increases the likelihood of an early death. Established in honour of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, the commission’s findings led the British government to create a Minister for Loneliness. Its report also suggests that even a simple conversation with a stranger can be a “radical act of community service”, and it urges people to end the “routine journey that is head-down, headphones in, not a word spoken from home to work.”

Tracey Crouch, the new minister, estimates that nine million Britons – close to twenty per cent of the population – deal with frequent loneliness. Among the worst affected are disabled youth, people who care for the elderly, and the elderly themselves (200,000 reported not having a conversation with friends or relatives for more than a month). These depressing numbers are arguably due to the decline of communal spaces like libraries and sports facilities, the disappearance of which reflect Britain’s increasingly neoliberal outlook.

It is hard not to attribute the surge of modern alienation to shifting economic norms. “Plenty of exotic theories are proposed to account for the remarkable rate of mental health disorders now reported in many nations,” writes the Guardian columnist George Monbiot, “But it seems to me that the erosion of community and our separation from others is sufficient to account for much of it.” Monbiot’s point is that we have grown up in a culture that assures us that self-interest and hypercompetitiveness “are our greatest virtues, to be cherished, cultivated and defended against dastardly attempts to break down social barriers and work together… Atomisation and social collapse are celebrated as the preconditions for an entrepreneurial society.”

Alienation transcends culture and income levels but it is noticeably exacerbated by Western consumerism. Six years ago researchers at Northwestern University tracked the responses of groups who were shown luxury goods – cars, electronic devices, jewellery – versus those who were reminded of  community oriented activities. The study concluded that “irrespective of personality” subjects were likelier to be anxious, solitary and depressed if treated as consumers and far less likely to engage in non profit-oriented activities such as volunteering. Our collective drift towards consumerism has also been driven by the mass migration of people from countries to cities, not to mention the larger international migration that has surged in recent years.

Somewhere during the middle of the last decade, according to the American scholar Mike Davis, the urban population of the earth surpassed its rural population. The consequences of this shift are so momentous we have barely begun to adjust to them. They include a loss of community spirit and the growing depersonalization of our fellow citizens. In a megalopolis like Mexico City, for instance, it is possible for nearly 15,000 street children to subsist within an urban space that contains thousands of high rise buildings, luxury apartments, bars and restaurants. Other large cities have also learned how to ignore or downplay the hardship and loneliness of thousands in their midst. People who migrate to these cities for a better life – not to mention refugees and other minorities – often do so without any social networks. If they end up at the margins of their new homes they pay a corresponding steep price in social and economic exclusion.

The West Indies ought to be far more resistant to loneliness than it is. Even though our largest cities are relatively small, we often mimic the social attitudes of much larger countries. Economic success in the modern Caribbean usually means relocation to a gated community, private education for one’s children and other profound withdrawals from society. How many of us who grew up regularly walking the streets, visiting cinemas or watching local sports events still do so? Likewise, although a tradition of private support for local charities has persisted here for much longer than in other countries, it still receives little recognition and practically no corporate or governmental support.  If nothing else, Guyana’s appalling suicide rate is ample evidence that we need to do a great deal more to create a compassionate society.

The naturalist David Attenborough once noted that our collective obsession with lives of celebrities could be attributed to the atomization of society. “These days everything is depersonalised,” he told a journalist, “and that means people have been downgraded into reacting like termites … What people need is to be recognized when they walk out of the door just by someone saying, ‘Good morning,’ or knowing who they are or caring whether they fell over or didn’t.” Given our size, history and culture, no Guyanese, or West Indian, should ever have a valid excuse for not interrupting their self-interested routines for such a simple but radical act of kindness.

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