Well. This is alarming. Utterly depressed myself on Twitter for ten minutes only to end up with social apocalypse. The article, as your finger is hovering over to click it, is about the epidemic of loneliness in modern life, and the sharp catastrophic rise in mental illness. The thing is packed with depressing statistics landing, somewhere towards the bottom, with this:
“Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system.”
Isn’t that just great. The author keeps going. Social media. Competition in the work place. General modern isolation. It is building and building and reaching the point of societal catastrophe. At the very end he writes, “This does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.”
Why does everything have to be a policy response, or even something “much bigger”? In this case, a total change in world view. Actually, I agree with that, although he wouldn’t at all like what I would happily propose. His solution, by the way, is that he’s started some sort of organization around music. He goes into pubs and gets people to sing along or something. I didn’t read the second link very well.
I have two things to say. One, I agree that modern life is ridiculous and of course we are all mentally ill. When I would have to come back to America as a child, and then when I finally had to move here permanently, I easily and instantly noticed that the complex social and societal demands made on individual people were excessive. In high school I once had to spend six whole months in the US and I had a sharp and inescapable headache the entire time. When I stepped off the plane back in Africa it went away. Fortunately when I came back for college I coped much better, but I often went around mourning the high level of sophistication a person has to possess to “do well” in a place like this. Just doing laundry is a stressor, and setting up a bank account, and getting a phone. It’s not that you don’t interact with people, it’s that you can always be in trouble and wrong. But maybe that’s another blog post.
My first experience, of course, with American life was before social media. And that is the second point I’d like to make. Social media, which, naturally, I am using to try to get you to buy my book, is, to say nothing original at all, a double edged sword. On the one hand I have met actual friends in real life because of the Internet, and would be truly lonely if the miles couldn’t be overcome by the touch of my index finger on the screen. But on the other hand, there is the deep isolation that comes from looking at that same screen, exposing myself to the charmed lives of others or the trauma of this election. In one single moment I can make a connection with and be alienated from someone I thought I knew.
But really, I quibble with the author’s diagnosis that what ails us in modern society is loneliness. Loneliness is maybe the manifestation of the more original problem, the reason that we are all desperately clinging to our phones in the first place. And that is that the human person needs to be known. Why snap a selfie? Why so many status updates? Why argue and battle it out on Twitter? It’s because we want other people to know us, in all the vast richness of that English word.
This is the most primordial need. Adam in the garden was known by God, and then Eve was brought into that knowledge. There was settled peace. But then the two of them, as indeed we each would have, decided they wanted to know themselves and the world without the knowledge of God residing at the core. God could be dispensed with. And so they cut him out. It’s no new problem. And there’s no new solution that can fix it. If you try to know yourself and be known by others without God at the very center, you’re going to be lonely, and ultimately, of course you’re going to suffer all kinds of other troubles including but not limited to mental illness.
The solution is to return to the one who can know you perfectly, even and especially when no one else can not even yourself. The solution is not, to flip it around, to try to just know more people and make people connect through programs and more government. The more each of us continue to look to other people who are just as wretched as we are to solve the loneliness epidemic, the worse it will get, and is getting. At some point individual people have to look to God to discover that he is enough. His knowledge of the individual is sufficient for that individual to be satisfied. Then each of those people, rooted and grounded in the love of God, can turn out and make connections with other human beings. And then we can have, what do you call it, Community. But no, we have to keep doing Adam and Eve day by day, moment by moment, sucking all other people dry for self satisfaction, wondering why there’s never enough to fill the deep well of isolation and anxiety.