Loneliness and American Culture

October 9, 2007 at 7:02 pm Leave a comment

What prompted this topic was an interview I saw with an immigrant worker.  He said he didn’t want to live in the United States because of the “loneliness and sadness” that comes with life here.   From my travels I’ve come to sense that Americans are not the happiest people on the planet, but that’s not the story you’ll hear from most of my compadres.  So, today I’m considering the topic of loneliness and American culture.

What is loneliness?  Does it go away with more “friends” or more phone calls?  Perhaps I’m unusual in that I can be in a crowded room and still feel lonely.  I’ve also noticed that the only thing worse than being lonely is being in a relationship and alone.  These observations suggest that loneliness is not just a physical phenomenon, but results from not feeling connected to other people.  Unfortunately, I think lonely people are everywhere simply because we don’t know how to communicate.  And, I truly believe you can’t communicate meaningfully with others until you can so with yourself.  So, while some may consider loneliness as a “bad” thing in life, I would suggest that it is essential to the human experience because it is a tool to help us understand both our self and our society.

I think the predominance of loneliness in our culture stems from several sources.  In general, Americans have a strong sense of independence and competition. While this may suit us in many circumstances, independent minded people may not take advantage of natural support systems such as family.  This influence is minor compared to the effects of our Great Experiment.  Modern urban planning has disconnected people through the design of our car culture.  The automobile allows us to pick and choose who we socialize with so we aren’t challenged to “just get along” and emphasizes the theme of self over community.  Furthermore, our economics is pulling families apart.  Families face financial pressures for two incomes to survive, conflicting with children’s needs to connect with their parents.  Additionally, our social system tells us that in order to survive, we have to ignore certain failures of our economics such as homelessness, poverty and lack of health care.  And, to compound it all, the speed and distractions of our world leave few with the time needed to think and reflect on such matters.  While liking yourself is a simple solution to loneliness, its fulfillment is problematic in our world.

If people reinforce their cultural beliefs through the stories they share, then are we blindly following the blind? If love is everywhere in our media why are divorce rates so high?  Maybe that IS the problem!  For Americans love is nothing deeper than a series of images or emotions we capture and hold in our head to recreate at a later time.  Maybe it’s unromantic of me to break down the notion of “love”, but the truth may lie a little deeper in the pile of details.  From my experience love is a result of trust.  Trust results from shared experiences, communication or both.  If we don’t engage in trusting partnerships, I believe the end result is the sense of loneliness.  In general, Americans start relationships at a boiling passion.  But the reality is that it can only cool from that point.  In India for example, where the couple may not even know each other describe such relationships as starting cool and warming with time into a great friendship.

How does this topic relate to sustainability?  As we promote solutions around the world we are also exporting the problems inherent with those solutions.  So, when we consider how to change our world into a sustainable one, we want to be sure that our choices do not systemically create and promote such problems.  How?  For example, pedestrian friendly communities increase the connectedness we feel with others and contribute to overall physical health.  Transportation based on public solutions rather than individual ownership eliminates systemic deficiencies while increasing cooperation, common access and decreasing the cost of living requirements.

Perhaps our understanding of freedom is still immature.  Maybe our freedom ends where our responsibilities toward others begin.  And, maybe we choose to take on those responsibilities both individually and socially to nurture and address our inherent humanity.


Entry filed under: People, Philosophy, Sustainability.

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