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Our collective loneliness

As we become lonelier, do we also think what brought us to this stage where loneliness is consciously acquired and preferred?

Our collective loneliness

There’s an activity that teens in private schools are happily engaged in these days called MUN. Most schools host an M.U.N. every year. The students who actively participate in these MUNs (acronym for Model United Nations) are known as ‘Munners’ among peers.

Recently, I happened to sit with a group of Munners at a friend’s place — our children basically — trying to gather what this was all about. They used the word “back-stabbing” as an essential part of their strategy. The goal, it was implied, is to earn the Best Delegate award; so ends justify all means, especially back-stabbing. The collective spirit was missing as much in its replication as in the real United Nations.

I still can’t get over how the children uttered the word so normally.

Of course we are becoming lonelier as a society. But while we want to address loneliness as some kind of a disease, a mental ailment which leads to many physical illnesses that in turn cause more loneliness, do we also think about what brought the society to this stage. Isn’t it a natural corollary of individuals’ aspirations, seeking material advancement, personal gratification, largely through power and money? Loneliness is in many ways consciously acquired and hence preferred.

This individualism is starkly visible in children because that is what their education is preparing them for. They are growing up under this pressure to be high achievers. There is no expectation to do anything for collective good except when it looks good on their college applications. Our first question to a child usually is: What do you want to be when you grow up. We refer to their careers. Since we don’t see them in relation to the society, we never ask them about that.

Hence, back-stabbing is normal. And so is loneliness among the youth.

Children and the youth hold up a mirror to society, but is anyone looking. The middle-aged and the elderly are lonely in their own ways. Where there is work, it does take up a chunk of one’s time. Where there isn’t work, there is just emptiness. Or television. Or gadgets like cell phones.

Modernity and the lifestyle changes or aspirations that come with it have forced people to move from close-knit centres to the periphery, and from there to the larger periphery — from villages to cities, from cities to foreign countries. Welcome to the global village which is more global than village.

Suburban life is isolated, yet everyone wants to give up the mohallah to go live in a sprawling house. The air quality is better in the suburbia, they say, while the truth is no humans have felt the need or desire to communicate with air.

Humans want humans to communicate, share and grieve with, to love and hate. But the neoliberal values of modern capitalism is preventing that from happening. There is of course technology to compensate. But it isn’t clear yet if technology is drawing people away from each other or closer.

Humans want humans to communicate, share and grieve with, to love and hate. But the neoliberal values of modern capitalism, obsessed with profit maximisation and efficiency, is preventing that from happening. There is of course technology to compensate. But it isn’t clear yet if technology is drawing people away from each other or closer. When roads and vehicles and planes took them away from home, there came more technology to connect the people again.

That leads to the important question: Is technology a cause of loneliness or a cure? We don’t realise how dependent we are becoming on machines and how less is the human interaction, especially in cities. A government-run saving centre that is still not digitised offers a sharp comparison with say, the private banks. The staff at the centre knows all the faces, mostly women and elderly, that periodically turn up to get their share of profit; the customers know the staff as well. Life moves slowly here compared to the ATM that churns out notes within seconds.

Also Read: Alone among millions

One of the many benefits of this acquired loneliness is privacy with a capital ‘P’, which is a jealously guarded virtue. The suburban class shall only mingle with the suburban class and by appointment. You can’t allow people to walk into your house and lives unannounced and uninvited.

As for loneliness, there is a cure available. Social media offers this one way to protect your privacy and socialise, put up your best face and mind at whatever time you think is best. Rest assured, you will find other people’s best faces and minds at any time of the day.

Is loneliness a class thing? I wonder if the men sitting around a hookah in the adjoining slums or housemaids standing together in the corner of the street for a chat before and after work are less lonely. They do seem like it. I also wonder if men who don’t really talk about what they feel are more lonely.

Is loneliness such a bad thing after all. There are those among us who seek it deliberately, become comfortable with it and turn it into art and poetry and literature. They need the solitude and silence, the time and waiting, to create something of value. Creativity is essentially lonely. Soon the moment comes when emptiness is filled with joy, for the creator and the rest of the world. Whichever side of the fence you stand, loneliness can’t seem to be a permanent state.

Farah Zia

2 comments

  • Wow! That hit home. When I moved to the US, I noticed everyone was a slave to their calendar. You could never hangout now, it was always a plan in the future. Who knows if you’d even want to meet then? Just like you swipe your credit card and worry about it later, you swipe your calendar card, assign a date and time and forget about it. The impersonalization makes it harder to bond.

  • I feel that loneliness is often confused with solitude.
    One can feel lonely walking down midtown Manhattan while surrounded by a bustling 5 million warm bodies around him.

    Solitude is the state where one ‘chooses’ to be alone whether for self reflection or pursuing something of value to themselves.

    Also, while solitude is a physical state of being, loneliness is a mental sense of being.

    Many of the kids today find social media means of expressing their thoughts and connecting with others; that, I feel, removes the sense of loneliness; when one feels that they ‘belong to a community’ or have friends who respond to their reach-outs.

    I think the jury is still out whether our times or the technological marvels will make us more connected or make us lonelier.

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