Tuesday, November 4, 2014

On Loneliness: Modern American Society

Note: To read the other parts of this series, just click on the loneliness tag at the bottom of this post.

Chances are that you forgot about this series, or perhaps thought it was done, because I haven’t posted anything about it since April. I had originally intended three more posts for the series, entitled: My Personality, Modern American Society, and Conclusions. However, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that I’d said enough about my personality, and that what little is left to be said about it will come out in my other posts. Therefore, I decided to cut out that post.

As I sat down to write about American society, I quickly realized that I had a lot to say, and that not all of it necessarily flowed together cohesively. This has led to me spending a lot of time thinking about what, exactly, my point is. After a while, it occurred to me that I had two related points: one specifically about American society, and one about social media, which I don’t see as solely an American issue. Eventually I decided that these two points needed to be addressed separately, which means that, while there will still be three more posts in this series, they’re now entitled: Modern American Society, Social Media, and Conclusions.

Now, on to my musings about American society:

I think that, in an interpersonal sense, it can be very difficult to be an American. We get a lot of mixed messages. One of the most celebrated American characteristics is independence. We’re very proud of our individualism here. (It’s always amused me that the most feared bad guy in the Star Trek universe is the Borg, who strip a person of his/her individuality. It seems like the quintessential American fear.) In America, you’re supposed to be self-reliant. If you get knocked down, you’re supposed to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. If someone wants to help you, that’s fine, but you’re not supposed to ask for it. Asking for help is weak and needy, and that’s bad. At the end of the day, the only person you’re supposed to rely on is yourself.

You would think, with this strong emphasis on rugged individualism, that we Americans would feel encouraged to be a nation of loners, but that’s simply not the case. As much as we are pressured to be self-reliant, we are also pressured to be popular. The implication is that a person can’t be happy or fulfilled if he or she doesn’t have dozens, if not hundreds, of friends. The only time you hear the word “loner” in America, it’s usually coupled with a tone that indicates that loners are weird, undesirable. The person who committed the latest mass shooting? A “loner” who never talked to anyone. Pedophile/rapist? A “loner” who lived in Mom’s basement.

In America, the land of “you take care of yours and I’ll take care of mine,” being a loner is definitely a no-no.

It can all be a bit confusing. I feel like I’m expected to accumulate a huge social network, while, at the same time, I’m told not to depend upon that network. That leaves me to wonder what the point of having all these friends is. Bragging rights? I occasionally enjoy watching game shows and I always laugh whenever someone is set to win a dream weekend getaway with 50 of his or her “closest friends.” Who honestly has 50 “close” friends, I wonder? 50 friends, sure, but “close” ones? I highly doubt it.

Which is not to say that I discourage anyone from pursuing close relationships. If you’ve been reading this series, then you’ll know how much my friendships mean to me. However, the pressure in this country to accumulate as many friendships as humanly possible is intense. I find the idea that all of these friendships could actually be meaningful and close ridiculous. That’s simply not how human interaction works. America, as a nation, sort of feels like a teenager who hasn’t yet figured out that not everyone will like it and/or be its BFF

For my own part, I actually enjoy spending a significant amount of time by myself. I wouldn’t call myself a loner. I enjoy the company of other people. It can be a delicate, and difficult, balance to strike though. If I spend too much time alone, I get depressed, but if I spend too much time with other people, it exhausts me. And I’m not immune to societal pressure. Whenever I take too long of a break from pursuing human interaction, I start to feel like something is wrong with me. I know that feeling didn’t originate from inside of me. I know that it’s me responding to outside messages.

As far as friendships go, all I’ve ever really wanted was a small, core group of true blue companions who will journey through life with me. This has proven frustratingly elusive to attain. When I lived in Portland, I felt like I’d built a strong foundation of friendship. If I still lived there, I’d likely find that to be true. However, I discovered, much to my disappointment, that even in this age of the internet and social media, moving away from your friends means that you simply won’t remain as close to most of them as you were when you lived in the same city. Friendships, like all other relationships, require effort, and most people aren’t willing to put that kind of effort into someone they virtually never see in person.

My husband and I have moved too much these last six years for me to fully form the kind of close relationships I had in Portland. While I understand this on an intellectual level, it’s still difficult to accept. We Americans aren’t especially known for our patience. Also, since I’m an introvert, it’s difficult for me to keep putting myself out there, to work for the kind of connections I want. Additionally, I’ve encountered another problem of American society: our almost pathological need to be busy (or at least appear to be) nearly all the time.

Honestly, I used to come up against this in Portland as well. You meet someone you like, you make an effort to spend time with them, only to be constantly rebuffed because the person just doesn’t have time for you. They’ve got work and self improvement classes and exercise and book clubs/women’s groups/church/volunteer work/whatever and kids and tons of other friends. There’s simply very little room in their schedule for you, no matter how much you may have clicked with them. It’s nearly as infuriating as it is frustrating. 

I’ve always thought that, if people really want to spend time with you, then they’ll make time. If they can’t be bothered to make time, then that’s all you need to know about them. Now I have to wonder if this is the case. I feel like a lot of Americans don’t know how not to be busy, like the busyness fills some kind of void and if they stop to breathe for a few minutes, then they’ll have to think about whatever it is that they’ve been dodging. Busyness is a kind of sickness. I could be overanalyzing, or perhaps even projecting. All I know is, back when I had the “busy bug,” I was mostly trying to flee feelings of loneliness.

Sometimes I think I need to catch the “busy bug” again. It was certainly a time of my life that felt full and fun. However, it didn’t fix my underlying problems then, so I doubt it would fix anything now. Being busy certainly kept me from thinking too much, but it didn’t bring me the kind of connections I was seeking. In the ensuing years, I’ve slowed down a lot, spent lots more time by myself, and figured out that the world didn’t end when I was left alone with my own thoughts. However, that hasn’t brought me the kind of connections I’m seeking either.

I’m still not sure what the answer to this dilemma is. Like most solutions, it probably lies somewhere in the middle. It’s good to be busy, but not too busy. It’s good to make friends, but you should work on cultivating only a few of those friendships into something deeper. It’s good to be your own person, but you really should ask for help when you need it. And by the way, if you like to be alone, that’s okay too. “Loner” shouldn't be a dirty word anymore. 

I feel that everyone should embrace what works for him/her. However, it’s always important to take a step back and reflect on what does work for you. Just because something is “normal” or “correct” by society’s standards doesn’t mean that it’s right for you (note: I am not advocating for any illegal activity). After all, being an individual means not going along with the herd. It means asserting your independence. 

What could be more American than that?


Patricia said...

Great essay, with a lot to think about.

For one, I too have struggled with feeling like I NEED to have many friends. I really just want one or two. A naturopath I was seeing once asked me, "do you like doing things by yourself?" When I responded in the affirmative, she said that having few friends was probably fine for me. That was a huge relief.

I struggle with the busyness/friendship too. On the one hand, I have things in my schedule I don't like to move (now on Monday,Tuesday, Wednesday nights) so that takes out those evenings for socializing. And sometimes I find myself not wanting to schedule time on the weekend with friends because I like to have a lot of free time, which for me means no structure. But then I feel like I'm distancing myself from people.

As a teenager, I had a group of four other girls for friends and we did things. Sometimes in pairs, sometimes all five of us, various combinations of us, whatever. They were also the kind of friends I had where we just "hung out" as in went over to one another's house with no specific plan of what to do in mind. I haven't non-specifically hung out since college.

Now I find I have friends for specific things. One I see movies with, one I drink cocktails with, one I go on walks with etc. Which is fine, but I can rarely get them off that specific "thing" track. It's very weird.

I was thinking about the point in the far future when I go to live at the retirement home. I think one thing I will like is that it's essentially a big dorm for retired people. And there are activities. So I can be alone and be with people. My excitement over this theoretical future makes me wonder if I should explore cohousing communities, but they kind of make me nervous.

As you can see, you've given me a lot to think about.

balyien said...

Yeah, "hanging out" is something that seems to disappear the older you get. I used to do that a lot in college. Not so much now. And yet it's my favorite thing to do! I love just hanging out with people and chatting. Sure, I like to go out and do fun stuff too, but I'm typically content to just chill. It's the act of having my friends near me that makes me happy, not whatever we're doing together.

Retirement communities do look like fun to me, and an excellent way to keep loneliness at bay when the younger generations forget that you exist.