A friend articulated the problem clearly to me one day when describing the difficult transition between university and employment. In college, she had had a close circle of friends with whom she shared each day, but now she felt like she was constantly alone.
“I keep asking myself, ‘Where is everyone?’” she confessed. “Where are all the people? I have this persistent feeling like there are supposed to be people around, but they are missing.”
Atomization and Loneliness
I frequently hear that we are in a crisis of loneliness. While this is true, my friend’s sentiment strikes closer to the heart of the issue. It is not simply that people feel lonely; it is that people are less connected than they have ever been. We are in a crisis of atomization. Where loneliness is a feeling inside of us, atomization speaks to the reality of our circumstances. Although loneliness can present itself in any culture and time, its current excess is a byproduct of atomization.
Atomization is the process by which larger units—compounds or cultures, molecules or families—are broken down into their subcomponents, their individuality gaining clarity as their relationships disintegrate. It affects not just our situation but our capacities. Culturally, we lack the social technology which once would have bound us together. We are atomized in that our lives are less intertwined, but also in that we are less able to withstand close contact and the constraints it brings—this is seen in a breakdown of both romantic relationships as well as friendships. Our society has changed significantly over the last several years, and many of the solutions that once held us together seem unfit to the new texture of the world, and the new challenges it brings. I see people grappling with this problem in many ways: from attempts to return to older traditions, to new solutions which are more compatible with the modern world; from turning inward to fix themselves, to turning outwards to fix the world. The issue of atomization however, is more complex than most realize, and we are in many ways culturally and psychologically unequipped to deal with it.
Will getting married and having children solve the problem? I watch people romanticize married life, but families today are atomized as well. They lack neighborhoods. They send their kids to daycare as both parents work just to pay the cost of modern life. Family may be critical, but is it really enough?
Will living in a group house fix it? It seems that co-living arrangements often miss a deeper problem. It is rare for them to last more than a few years with the same people, and when they do, the solution often isn’t intended to extend over generations. In the end, they appear a patch which, while useful, still succumb to the rootlessness of modern life.
Will therapy heal your loneliness? Is the problem really with you? Mental diagnoses focus on problems with brain chemistry or emotional trauma, but fail to look at the widespread societal ailments which surely affect them.
These questions are hard to answer because, while they all contain handfuls of truth, they miss the immense ocean before us.
You’ve heard the statistics of marriages failed to form or to last, of children glued to the TV, of adolescents unable to manage conflict. If not, you’ve been in public spaces, seen people consumed by their devices, seeming fully withdrawn from the physical environment and people around them—you’ve been one of them as well. The factors which have led us here are many and highly complex. Still, there are a few key pieces which may shed light on our present predicament.
On Status, Freedom, and Place
Careerism, as it is understood, has had a detrimental effect on our population. Careers are often embedded within companies whose reach is too large for us to really comprehend. Our effect on the system as a whole is obscured by its vastness. Yet, we feel that if we rise higher in the company, university, or institution, we will have a larger impact. There is a conflation of status with real power to affect people. Combine the human desire to set right that which is around us, and the fact that the entirety of the world now lives in our mind’s eye: how can we resist the urge to rise to the top?
The decline of tangible ways to impact our community and the global awareness brought by mass media has rendered our only routes to unity superficial. It seems that in our attempt to transcend the masses, we have become them. We end up with everyone believing they will be the one to change the world, competing with each other to increase status while failing to cultivate any real skill or ability to coordinate among ourselves. I don’t think this is the whole story but it’s an important aspect to keep in mind. I often see people who have divorced their career from their personal desires, as if their mission in the world could be understood through the binary of professional and personal. This leaves people feeling simultaneously unfulfilled by their job and their family life, with their personal desires seeming trivial and their work life draining.
Let us turn next to the pursuit of freedom. Currently, freedom is not commonly understood as a freedom of the spirit that relies on self mastery—as the ancient Greeks viewed it—but as freedom from all constraints, a view gifted us by liberal thinkers like John Locke. Freedom, I believe, is a complicated and beautiful thing which entails a much longer analysis, but for now I will say that the problem here is a conception of freedom for the weaker parts of the self—not the stronger. It is a freedom of license to make whatever decisions one wishes without intervention or barrier.
This freedom of license merely trades one master for another, and gives us less control over ourselves and our circumstance.
Ultimately, this concept entails freedom from one another, the emancipation of the individual from the group. If we hold the stated desires and preferences of individuals as a moral absolute, the function of the group erodes, as its needs are undermined by those of its members. Class transcendence quietly implies a departure from family and place. While this mobility has benefits, it seems that we have too many people moving and too few staying put to maintain a stable society. Perhaps the problem is that we do not have good enough places to rise to, or that the stable life of the lower class has become increasingly untenable. Today, the modern rise through the lower classes increasingly involves reliance on technology. To stay connected with the people who can help pull you upwards, you must dedicate hours upon hours looking through the portal to the virtual realm. Digital technology captures much of our attention and gives little back. While its usefulness is undeniable, we are psychologically ill-equipped to manage it, and it has crept increasingly into our shared time and common space.
[Read “The Locking Spine”]
The coffee shop in its origins was a place of community, where people came together to share ideas and create things. Now it is a convenient comfort which fuels the modern worker, helplessly affixed to laptop and phone. Yet, how did this happen? Why were we so vulnerable to this technology? It preys on an existing weakness and weakens us further. We will need novel solutions to combat its grip on us moving forward.
Throughout all this, we have lost or abandoned our common values, which has allowed elements of our world, like money and personal pleasure, to rise to the status of the divine which they were never destined for. In the churn of upward mobility, we have lost touch with our roots, and in doing so, find ourselves working long hours in an expensive city where we have no personal equity and few friends. How, amidst all this, are we to have a stake in the future, when there seems to be no place for us in it?
I believe this placelessness describes the situation of many young people today quite literally. Another friend of mine grew up in a coal mining town. After many years spent in the city, she felt keenly the loss of her family and community. But there was no longer a place for her there. The jobs were gone, and as people moved away, any prospects of a future there faded. “If I could go back I would, but at this point there’s really nowhere I can go that feels like home. I feel stranded,” she said.
This generation has seen us pulled into a narrative of progress only to find ourselves disillusioned and stuck, with nowhere to turn.
It is a cruel irony that in focusing on the apparent needs of individuals, we have found ourselves, as individuals, without place, personal fulfillment, or prospects. This presents to us the great omission of our time: a fundamental error in our understanding of people. We forgot that the individual’s needs include the family, the community. They cannot be cleanly separated. Yet, in growing into an atomized world, something has changed within us. In creating a system for individuals and not for community, we have fundamentally changed people’s capacity to live a non-atomized life, form healthy bonds, and maintain them.
[Read “On Their Home, Not Mine”]
Communities Exist to Build Great Things Together
While it may be necessary, the problem is not one that can be solved by a simple change of circumstance. Nearly every system around us exerts an atomizing pressure, and wherever we go the problem will follow us—inside us and out. I’ve come to believe that the real culture war is not political. It is this.
Atomization has laid the groundwork for polarization, and if we want to solve the latter we must bring about conditions in which it cannot survive. Our increasing inability to stay close to friends and family makes it easier to pull us apart, to pit us against one another. You must stand against this in every way you can. By default people won’t reach out, so it will be up to you to do so. And you’ll have to keep going, and be persistent, even when your efforts aren’t reciprocated and you feel discouraged and alone. It requires intense humility and persistence but it might be the only way forward. Regardless of where you are, I guarantee there is something you can do. Host dinner parties regularly and invite people you meet to them. Take on projects with friends and family that benefit both of you and contribute something to the world. When things break down and conflict arises, persist and work through it. Try to invest your energy in things you will keep, whether it be places, friends, homes, or institutions. I think moving to small towns near large cities will prove a promising strategy. Even neighborhoods within cities may do. The point is, you must get to know people around you and work together to help one another grow and thrive.
Real progress on this front requires a change of heart. Without it, we will be lost. We cannot simply go on and attempt to solve this problem with meetup groups, apps, or moves to new cities. A larger shift in values, first in small groups, and then on a societal scale, will be necessary. We want community, but we like the comfort of day-to-day life. We like watching TV and ordering takeout. It’s difficult to keep relationships going, people are busy. Over-valuing freedom as license, comfort, and personal satisfaction is at odds with forming community. The problem is immense, and it takes a great amount of will to stand against it. I often joke that to have friends today, you need to have the mindset of a founder. Community was something that used to be inherited by our parents and grandparents—tended to and passed on gently between generations. However, today, much of that social fabric has crumbled. We are living in a time where we cannot accept the social norms if we are to live well. We must live each day in radical opposition to the world, keeping in mind that the economics of modern life are designed to atomize us, and we must be active in preserving a better way of life. At the same time, this atomizing force is affecting everyone, and we must love those around us fiercely and determinedly.
Although critical, we must remember that community is never the whole story, never the end goal on its own. We are not here simply to form connections, but to accomplish something great together. Without close bonds and real trust, we will be quite incapable of doing this. I believe that with the right understanding of human nature, we need not make a harsh tradeoff between individual pursuits and connectedness. If these things were fundamentally irreconcilable, I expect humanity would have ceased to exist long ago. We need each other in order to seek greatness, manifest beautiful ideas, and to build the foundation of a world which might make this possible. Let us keep this in mind as we go about each day. Let us enter boldly into the fray, and begin working to patch it back together.
Willow is a Canadian writer, social philosopher, aspiring homesteader, and host of many gatherings working on developing theory and practice of good community.