Try a Hug
Newcastle — John Steinbeck wrote: “Man is a lonely animal when cut off from the phalanx.” This has the ring of truth. We are social animals. Yet the preference for interpersonal relationships ebbs and flows with the decades. In a recent New Yorker book review of Eric Kleinberg’s “Going Solo, The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone,” Nathan Heller notes that: “Today, half of U.S. residents are single, and a third of all households have one occupant.” Even more alarmingly, I have heard elsewhere that in New York City, half the households are single occupant. Is this a good thing?
The Buddha told his students, “My friends, do not rely on anything outside of yourselves. Be an island unto yourself and take refuge in the island of yourself.” Much as I admire most of Siddhartha’s teaching, I do not agree with this.
Kleinberg maintains that “aloneness” is fostered by our current liberal values, “Women’s liberation, widespread urbanization, communications technology, and increased longevity.” The effect of the first two is obvious: women pursue successful careers, have ready control over reproduction. Late marriage and early divorce are commonplace, as men are increasingly marginalized. Regarding urbanization, in a city you can readily make social contact at bars or gyms or clubs; living alone does not mean isolation. On the farm these resources are not available, and adding to the incentive for family is the need for cheap labor to help with the chores!
The final entry, increased longevity, may or may not contribute to living alone, depending on one’s physical ability to take care of oneself. Clearly it is financially desirable to keep the elderly in their own home as contrasted to group homes or assisted living, but this will only work if there is a social structure to assist them. Please read Dr. Chip Teal’s excellent book “Alone and Invisible” where he narrates his tireless effort to support the elderly’s independence by technology (monitoring) but also human contact: real people volunteering to show up and check up. Or consider neighborhood organizations that have been set up to support the elderly’s living at home, e.g., Mill City Commons in Minneapolis, which a friend of mine has labored mightily to establish over the last several years.
The outreach programs mentioned above might seem to contradict a current social trend which manifests ever diminishing involvement with others. We now participate less, we volunteer less, we even vote less than earlier populations. It’s been pretty much a downhill slide since post WW II, apart from numerous, short-lived flare-ups like the Peace Protests of the Sixties, the Aids Crisis, Save the Environment, The Million Man March, Occupy Wall Street etc. However, as pointed out in Richard Putnam’s exhaustive 2000 study “Bowling Alone,” involvement is very much generation dependent. Those currently caring for and about the elderly are mainly also elderly and of a generation when social interaction was more prevalent.
I find the role of technology, in relation to solitary living, more puzzling. There is an argument that chat rooms or social networking or even just the telephone can fill our needs as social animals and leave us free to pursue life without the inconvenience of a demanding partner/family. Thus all these new gadgets have served to widen the playing field, to make us more, not less social. I don’t buy this either. Virtual relationships are empty unless accompanied by live contacts. I am quite disturbed by the eager efforts of our leading universities to provide education on-line. Of course this saves on the outrageous cost, but what of the social element of campus life? The web may have made the world smaller, but it has also made it lonelier (sorry eHarmony).
Technology has bewildered us. There is too much “communication”. This might be cause for one to pull back within oneself in monk-like defense (OK Buddha?) But is this even possible? Solitude in the form of a lonely walk in the woods or on the beach is not available to many who seem incapable of putting away their little cyber friend with its aps.
Perhaps the greatest loss, in this “living alone” society, is that we have gotten away from physical touch. I gave a line in the one act “Footsteps of Doves,” put on recently by the Lincoln Theater of Damariscotta, where I was trying to get my wife of twenty-five years to stay connected with me in a double bed rather than moving to singles. The line is: “After twenty-five years the image of the beloved may not be exciting, in and of itself; but the touch always is.” I agree with that. Stop thinking touch pad or touch screen and hug somebody! I suspect you’ll enjoy the experience. Or maybe you’re into Lovotics? As Charlie Brown was prone to say, “Good Grief!”