After high school, everything changes for most people. Even if a young person stays near home to go to college or to work, daily life no longer takes place entirely in the safe arenas of school, home, friends, and familiar environments. A person may be required to, or choose to, move out of her parent’s home, and many of her friends may leave for college, move or simply fade away. Students who go away from home to college undoubtedly experience the most severe uprooting, but for them, there is often some refuge provided by the college community. But, whether a person stays near home or goes to another city, it is very challenging to replace the built-in community that exists for most Americans throughout the usual school years.
It is easy to become isolated in urban and suburban areas where no built-in and consistent communities exist just outside a person’s door. Large populations, such as those in Southern California, are overwhelming and make it impossible to know everyone, which is more likely in small towns. In fact, it is often not desirable to know one’s neighbors in city and suburban environments—it could be threatening to privacy and even dangerous in some cases, especially for people who live alone.
As the country has become more urban and suburban during the last fifty years, and as small-town communities have become the exception rather than the rule, the challenge of finding a group to belong in has been made increasingly difficult. One might even argue that urban gangs have become attractive to young people because there is no natural community available to them, so they make their own–no matter how misguided they may be.
As a result of the isolating nature of modern society, a person must actively seek a group or groups to belong to in order follow his natural instincts for love, security, a sense of place in the world, and a context for creating a meaningful life.
In addition to large populations, the phenomenon and paradox of urban isolation can also be blamed on the ever-increasing effects of industrialization and technology. Today, it is literally possible to stay at home indefinitely, never leaving one’s house and still getting the most basic of needs met remotely by telephone and computer. Groceries can be ordered online and delivered. Bills can be paid using the computer as well. Many people also work from home, and their money goes straight into a remote bank account. It is no longer necessary for a person to have a physical community of people in order to survive. But, is that really true? Can an individual person really survive and thrive without a community?
Intuition alone most emphatically insists that, no, it is impossible for people to survive when left alone indefinitely. They will suffer psychological and emotional damage, at the very least. Scientific scrutiny would most likely concur—circumstantial evidence most certainly bears this out. In the late 1800s, a woman lived alone in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado. She went so long without seeing other people that she let herself freeze to death, leaving behind a note saying that she was just too lonely. Of course, there are always the experiments of reality shows observing how people cope when stranded, and the urban legends of women who are eaten by their cats because no one knew that they were dead. Every war has its tales of how, and if, people survived solitary confinement, considered by all cultures as an extremely severe punishment. Indeed, people are hardwired for interpersonal relationships, and never before has it been possible to live in complete isolation in a city of twenty million.
Community interdependence has always been the number one rule of the survival of the fittest. The word individual wasn’t even a part of the English language until after modern English was solidified in Shakespeare’s era. We have only perceived ourselves as individuals with individual rights and perceptions since the Romantic period, which was just two hundred years ago. Before that, people fit in neatly prescribed roles such as peasant, servant, lord, clergy, tradesman, or farmer. It was a given that each person had a role to play in God’s plan and in God’s community. Slavery was accepted because it was considered normal by society to be born into a particular social status. For example, for most of its history, India’s society has been largely based on the social doctrine of the caste system.
Before the focus upon the individual after the Romantic period, artists wrote of and depicted only the concerns of state, church, legend and myth. There were no novels, as such, either, which is a highly personal genre of literature. In the past, individual expressions of a poet’s inner feelings were unthinkable and considered irrational and even rude. This was what revolutionary about Wordsworth and his contemporaries: for the first time in human history, the Romantic poets and artists, as well as the democratic revolutions of the United States and France, ushered in the surprising and utterly new idea that the feelings and rights of the individual mattered. We consider this principle an absolute in Western society today, but in the past, personal civil rights were preserved only for the privileged few. Also, it would have been impossible for people to become detached from their communities. Hermits and religious men who wandered alone in the desert were rare oddities, and upon examination, one discovers that few actually stayed alone for long.
For those who are truly lonely, loneliness is a physical disease, as well as a social one. It is an unhealthy, and even dangerous, condition to be in. Each year around 30, 000 people kill themselves in the United States, and each year an average of about 1,000,000 people kill themselves worldwide. There is a reason that suicide is a taboo in our society; human beings are by nature communal creatures and should be kept alive and healthy by their communities. Today, we expect people to be successful on their own, without much help from those around them, the community or the government. It is a sign of weakness to ask for help. Although this attitude is gradually softening every decade with greater and greater acceptance of modern psychology, the independent, stoic attitude of the American people has gone too far and society is pedaling fast to make up for the time that loneliness has been allowed to grow out of control.
If it is unhealthy for people to be isolated in their homes watching television and staring at the computer all of the time, then it is imperative that social skills for the 21st century include how to make a community of one’s own. A person cannot sit back and wait for a community to come to her. She must make a commitment to go join one or to make one her self.
I was lonely for almost all of my twenties before I figured out the principle of making one’s own community. When I first became aware that it was up to me to surround myself with people and that built-in communities did not exist in my adult, modern environment, I did a few simple tasks to get started. I made a list of people, no matter where they lived, whom I wanted to keep in my life (to be honest, I dropped a few upon reflection). I then made a consistent effort to keep up with and to see those people. I still revise my list from time to time; I call it taking a friends and family inventory. Then, I phone, email and make an effort to see these people as often as possible. Email and social networking are very positive technological developments. The Internet does not have to make isolation worse; it can enhance a person’s quality of life if it is used to connect with people.
So, since my early thirties, I have deliberately set out to form a social circle, to belong to communities based around my hobbies, such as art and swing dancing, and to establish regular social traditions, such as having holiday parties and girls’ nights.
I must give a word of warning, though, especially to girls. Most women in their twenties don’t particularly like other women in their twenties. There is a lot of competition among young women for men, jobs and education, which doesn’t always foster goodwill. I was always a generous-hearted person, and so I didn’t always know when I was being messed with—I still don’t—but the first girl who stabbed me in the back for no good reason during my twenties came as a shock. Why be jealous of me? I wondered; I just wanted to be friends with whomever it was at the time who thought I wanted her boyfriend or whatever. So, if you are a woman in your twenties, make an effort to see past this because building a social base to last a lifetime is essential.
The following dictum applies to everyone: Use discernment in choosing the friends who will be in your social circle. I am much more careful today about whom I let into my life than I was in my twenties; I choose women (and men) who are strong and accomplished and secure. Friends are the family we choose—thank goodness.
Yes, ladies, it is a very good social goal to get married, but never dump your friends for him—they have the potential to be there always; he may not be. Learn to be just friends with men, too. It is possible and desirable to have male friends, as well. That goes for you, too, guys; learn to be just friends with women—they will provide your life with a balanced perspective and a lot of healthy enrichment.
Building personal communities should not be something that a person procrastinates; they are essential to well being and to good health. It is always best to make your life the highest quality it can be RIGHT NOW, and not tomorrow. Who knows! A giant preying mantis from outer space could scoop you up for his meal tomorrow. Or, there could be a nuclear war and blast the planet to pieces. Or, Lindsay Lohan might become a respectable movie star again! Also, you must consider that people are all you have left when you are older and your career is done. Ask yourself whom you want to grow old with. You may have to kick a few people out of your circle. It has been a hard lesson, but I have come to accept that some people are just mean, or FUBAR. There’s just no helping some people.
I must include a few words about the beauty of healthy solitude. It is definitely important to enjoy your own company. If you cannot do that, then you must work on growing to enjoy it; otherwise, a lack of contentment with yourself may inadvertently work to drive people away. The kind of societal issue that I am addressing in this essay is wholly separate and different in nature from being content with solitude. Almost everyone needs time alone. In fact, it is essential for the make-up of my particular personality; I must have plenty of time alone to recharge my batteries and to engage in many of my life’s pursuits that require me to spend many hours alone: writing, research, preparing for instruction, reading, and art. And, I also really enjoy cooking a meal for myself when there are no family and friends on hand. I drink a glass of champagne, sit down to savor my creation, and then cuddle up with a book or movie for the evening. There is nothing wrong with time well spent alone; it is healthy, but not all of the time.
The principle of making a community of one’s own is something to carry with you. You can always start again after the death of a friend or family member, a divorce, job transfers, etc. Tomorrow is a new day.
If you find yourself in the position of forming a new community for yourself, make lists of job, church, sports or hobby activities that will make you happy and that are accessible to you. Make a social calendar and stick to it. After you are involved with a community for a while, the activities will take on a life their own.
I clearly remember a specific day after I had just moved to a new city. I had absolutely nothing upcoming on my calendar—not one thing at all. I had the feeling that I would never have anything to do or anyone new to meet ever again. It was frightening and oddly refreshing at the time. The possibilities were endless, although daunting. Needless to say, my calendar did eventually fill up, but that experience felt like losing my balance near a cliff’s edge. I came very close to falling over that cliff—but I didn’t.
I do believe in Internet dating, as long as it leads to real relationships. But, purely online relationships have their place, too, just as long as you recognize the difference between a real relationship and an electronic one. Social networking can have its proper place. However, draw your boundaries and set your standards for both types of relationships and don’t stand for anything that is inferior, or insulting, or takes advantage of you. It took me years to build up the courage to cut off friendships or dating/romantic relationships that didn’t meet my needs.
Of course, human nature being what it is—decidedly faulty—there are no absolute promises that reaching out to people will always yield the desired results. However, one must realize that, in the 21st century, life will not come to you; you must make it for yourself. We don’t have the security of the rigid societies of the past, but we do have our precious freedom. We no longer just simply have to accept our lots in life—we can build communities to meet our needs and build our own meaning. This is a great responsibility, but it is also a great opportunity.