Do you suffer from loneliness? Feel isolated and distant from other people? Do you long for connection? Strive and hope to be noticed? To be loved? To be heard? To be touched? To be seen?
Well you are not alone. Or perhaps I should say, your feeling of being alone is widely shared by millions of others.
In truth, this loneliness is a pandemic — a cultural sickness that goes by the name “Individualism” —which is the widely held belief that human beings are individual selves living out isolated lives in their own personal bodies. This belief is profoundly at odds with everything that is known about human nature, yet still it persists and has been built into the social DNA of our modern world to such an extent that it feels like common sense.
Ask any psychologist about the human mind and they will tell you we are wired for human connection. We feel a strong foundational need for belonging. This need is so fundamental that newborn children who are not given physical contact are much more prone to immune failure and can even die from the torment of their isolation.
Similarly, the sociologists among us will attest that the fundamental unit of human existence is the small group and not the individual. We are who we are because of who we associate with. This “cliquishness” is well known in high schools around the world. There are the jocks and nerds, the gamers and book worms. Every trope found in teen movies has a basis in reality.
This tendency to form groups is so automatic, so deeply ingrained, that hierarchies arise (along with the tensions that come with them) around such arbitrary things as the color of one’s skin, the uniform a person is wearing, which dialect they speak, or any of a thousand other distinguishing factors meant to separate us against them.
So what happens when a social world is built up around the false belief in rugged individualism? People in such a world will paradoxically activate their innate social tendencies to create distance and isolation — to begin feeling separate and alone because that is what everyone else around them is doing. The predictable outcome will be heightened anxiety and stress, a greater likelihood for depression and in extreme cases suicide. The pitting of one against another in the hierarchies that quickly form between people.
This happens because humans think in terms of groups. When we frame the world as comprised of individuals, these “islands” of individuality become the conceptual units on which the social world is built up. Individuals are treated as the “Us” and the “Them” of the culture in which this habit of thinking has become dominant.
The individuals ARE the groups in this kind of world. This can be seen in the “me against the world” mindset that treats the self as one group pitted against all others — a prison created within the mind of an individualist to wall themselves off from the pain of bad relationships they seek to avoid. In the end, all they really do is hurt themselves and make it impossible to nurture healthy relationships with others.
Over time, the sickness of excessive individualism gives rise to a self-reinforcing pattern of chronic narcissism. Greed becomes an exalted good and a goal in itself — rising eventually to be the principal measure of health and well-being. To be king (or queen) of the mountain is the very definition of success in an individualistic society.
The focus on materialism (he who dies with the most toys wins) is also a natural and expected outcome of social isolation. A child who cannot find comfort in the affections of family or friends will look for it outside of herself. She will seek it in the things she can acquire to fill the void left where her basic humanity was neglected. In this way, an individualistic society becomes obsessed with material gain — with all the environmental and social harms that come with it.
The first step toward healing is to recognize the problem.
We can unplug from our smart phones, look up from our tablets, and see that the tiny islands of humanity around us are actually vast webs of interdependence. Our bodies are ongoing physical exchanges of nutrients, energy and molecules with every bite we take in, exhaled in every breath we let out. Similarly, the “self” we know as who we are is made up of aspirations from those who have inspired us — the role models for who we want to be.
I am the janitor in my high school who knew how to listen when a troubled teen needed someone to talk to. I am the nice old lady down the street when I was a kid who really knew where her roots were.
I am also the people I aspire not to be. My father wasn’t emotionally present after my parents divorced, so I will be damn sure that I am there for my own children. The same can be said for the bad teachers who lectured me but were not able to convey knowledge or wisdom. I won’t be one of those when I share what I have learned about life and the world!
See how it works? The me is really a WE.
This is how it has always been. The great lie of individualism is that it masks the communities within us. It conceals how we are composites of the good and the bad in others who have touched our lives. We truly would have died if no one touched us after we were born.
Because to be human is to be connected.
Onward, fellow humans.
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Joe Brewer is a change strategist working on behalf of humanity, and also a complexity researcher, cognitive scientist, and evangelist for the field of culture design.
[Image Credit: Flickr]