“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” ~Kurt Vonnegut
Have you ever felt like a stranger in your own life? Watching other people like you were separated by some invisible wall?
Most of us have felt it from time to time and understand all too well how detrimental loneliness can be if it doesn’t go away. In fact, research has shown that loneliness is worse than smoking or obesity to a person’s health.
Yet we live in a world that is more connected than it has ever been. How is it that so many of us feel lonely?
I’ve recently discovered the work of Gabor Maté, whose teachings on addiction and connection has inspired me deeply.
He discusses the mind-body connection (particularly the deadliness of suppressing emotions) and how social connections can accelerate healing.
When he speaks it makes so much sense it’s hard to believe this is not mainstream knowledge. How are we still treating the mind separate from the body? When someone develops cardiovascular disease, why are we not asking questions beyond their diet? Why are these people not supported holistically?
It makes complete sense to me that someone who develops a chronic illness or disease and is socially isolated will not be able to heal as quickly as someone who feels connected to his or her community. What’s frightening is that our society is almost built on this artificial sense of connection that only creates feelings of alienation. I suppose it’s because it’s good for business.
Alienation is a term originally coined by Karl Marx. His theory of alienation describes the “social alienation of people from aspects of their human nature as a consequence of living in a society of stratified social classes.” It occurs when a person withdraws or becomes isolated from their environment or from other people.
People who show symptoms of alienation will often reject loved ones, society, and even aspects of themselves. It’s a very disorienting sense of exclusion and separation. It’s also lethal for human animals who thrive and prosper when they are connected and feel like they belong.
Below are four types of alienation that pertain to our modern lives and how to combat each of them.
Alienation from Nature
It’s no surprise that alienation from nature contributes to our loneliness. We kill a part of ourselves when we destroy rainforests and dispose large amounts of garbage in our oceans. The movement to protect our earth is one that requires compassion and empathy for life beyond ourselves. It’s also a recognition that we are all connected.
I don’t mean this in a ‘kumbaya’ sense, I mean it literally. The oil and coal we burn will become the air we breathe, just as the tiny microbes of plastic will become infested in the fish we eat. How people can deny this is infuriating. If we destroy our planet, we destroy ourselves. The planet is a large organism that has gone through many dramatic makeovers across its lifespan of 4.5 billion years. It does need us, we need it.
I feel the best way to gain respect for our earth (if, for whatever reason, you don’t already) is to spend more time in the great outdoors. To leave the city and man-made buildings behind and spend time in nature.
How can you not fall in love with our planet when you listen to rush of a waterfall? Or feel the aliveness and buzzing of a forest? We are nature, after all. We came from it and we will return to it. Connection to the earth is, in a sense, connecting to our truest sense of self.
Alienation from People
Many of us are no longer connected to others in a meaningful way. Social media has largely replaced social interaction and created an artificial sense of connection. We are wired to connect to others face to face, eye to eye, not through our phones.
Social media is not only about connecting with others, but also an opportunity for companies to sell their products. There is an incentive for these platforms to keep you on longer and longer, stealing your precious attention.
There is a reason why you open your phone and suddenly get pulled into a vortex of bright red notifications and an endless newsfeed. There are top psychologists and behavioural scientists working to keep you on your phone longer. I recommend watching The Great Hack or The Social Dilemma for more on this topic.
This loss of attention causes us to become less present in the moment and more concentrated on what’s next, contributing to anxiety and depression. The effects of phone usage on our mental health are still being uncovered as are the laws around it. We are living in blurred lines, not quite sure how this will pan out. It’s like the era that our parents had with smoking before they connected the dots and accepted that it caused cancer.
If there is a loss of genuine social connection in your life, I know how hard it can feel to connect with others. It can be an uncomfortable and vulnerable to seek friendships with people. Where do we start as adults? It was so much easier when we were in kids.
Well, we can start by getting out more. Find hobbies, workshops, classes and meet people who share the same interests as you. During lockdown it’s obviously a bit harder, but there are also so many online communities that have popped up as a result. While it’s not the same as meeting in person, online groups of genuine sharing and connecting are the next best thing. Putting yourself out there is hard, but the risk is worth the reward.
Alienation from Work
When we do work that is just a means to an end and fulfills no purpose in our soul, it will slowly kill us. It reminds me of the quote, “The cost of not following your heart is spending the rest of your life wishing you had.” Doing some dead-end job because we are afraid to follow our dreams is painful.
We all have gifts inside of ourselves, and the task is to find out how we can make a living out of them. Of course, this comes with a level of pragmatism, we simply can’t quit our well-paid office job and decide to become a puppeteer. There are intelligent and careful ways of getting where we want to go if we have the determination. Every day is an opportunity to take steps in the right direction.
Go wherever you feel most alive and invigorated, it is always worth it. If you don’t believe me, look up “things people regret most on their deathbed.”
Alienation from Self
Last but not least, the disconnection from ourselves. Our true selves. The person we were when we first entered this world. Wild and free, happy to be. Then we got our light dimmed by our parents, society, and culture to follow the well-laid path and do what everyone else does. It’s not surprising that so many of us forget our inner child. But it’s not lost, it’s just lying under those layers and layers of who we needed to be.
I know I have disconnected from myself at times in my life. It hurts to go against my authentic self just to be liked or accepted. It’s like looking at my inner child and saying in her face, “You aren’t good enough. Change.” It breaks my heart.
The saddest thing is those who have completely lost touch with their youngest self. They remind me of Robin William’s Character in Hook before he realizes he is Peter Pan. He grew up only to become an overweight, miserable lawyer who was obsessed with work. He was completely disconnected from his family, nature, and of course, himself.
If only we all had a little Julia Roberts fairy to yank us out of our boring adult selves and remind us of our inner Peter Pan!
Imagine the zest for life we’d all have if we had to go undergo training to reconnect with our true self? Healing and transformation begin by developing a deep relationship to ourselves. How? Through meditation, journaling, therapy, being in nature, connecting genuinely with others. It will also require vulnerability, patience, courage, and the willingness to change.
We don’t need to keep our loneliness to ourselves. Ironically, it’s something we all have experienced and can relate to. If we can find ways to reconnect with nature, connect meaningfully to our friends and community, find fulling work that is aligned with our values, and connect to ourselves, the wall of loneliness will have no choice but to simply crumble away.
About Kimberly Hetherington
Kimberly Hetherington is a Canadian writer and Art Therapist based in Sydney, Australia. She loves to write, read, create, listen to podcasts, be in nature, and experience the kind of conversations that go beyond the ‘mask’ of everyday life. Check out her website for more on her journey through grief and loss, to hope and self-discovery.