Things in Solitude
I know there will be no magic change when I turn my calendar over into a new year. That doesn’t keep me from wanting to put this year behind me. It’s been a year of bad things for many of us: fear, uncertainty, way too many deaths, staggering numbers of unemployed, shuttered businesses, shelves emptied of essentials, a seemingly interminable Presidential campaign in the United States, and more. One of the worst things for many has been a deep sense of loneliness.
As much as some people have wanted to reframe social distancing as “physical distancing,” the feeling for me, at least, has been a loss of social contact. Zooming isn’t the same as seeing my colleagues and people down the hall in person and teaching a semester of classes to a screen in an empty room isn’t the same experience as standing with a group of students to talk through interesting—and not so interesting—topics. Even the few students who came to my “hybrid” classes in person had to stay apart from one another and from me, all of us masked. It’s implausible to claim something isn’t lost in that.
Standing six feet away from my mom as I deliver groceries to her and waving at neighbors from a distance, but never hugging or shaking hands or standing face-to-face, is a loss in something essential. I feel uncomfortable in almost all social situations, but this year has made me long for them and the anxiety they induce. I know I have it far less badly than many. I don’t live alone, but the small community of my husband and me (and the dogs) can’t provide either one of us with all the social connection we need.
This year has been particularly bad, but the virus has only accelerated a decades-long trend of increased social isolation and atomization. When I was in grad school, I went to hear Theda Skocpol, the Harvard sociologist, speak about the withering of the kinds of groups and clubs and organizations that used to bind people together within their broader communities. This was also the era of Robert Putnam’s essay, “Bowling Alone”, later developed into a book of the same name.
At the time, I saw that they were describing the world correctly. After all, the clubs and societies and fraternal organizations that had still been ubiquitous in my small hometown when I was a kid were becoming smaller and the province of ever older people. The Lions and Rotarians, Elks and Moose and Eagles, the Knights of Columbus or of Pythias, the Odd Fellows and Freemasons and Shriners and Job’s Daughters were still around, but their dwindling numbers were of my grandparents’ generation, not my parents’ and not mine. When the Shriners had their annual parade of lights, it was almost all men older than my grandfather riding in their little cars and terrifying me in their clown makeup. There weren’t many members of the altar societies and sodalities or the funeral choirs or the informal groups of women who prepared funeral lunches. They were all aging, too. The Jaycees and their fundraisers, including the haunted houses that still haunt me in my fifth decade, no longer had the clout they once did, nor did the various sororities for adults, with their annual variety shows. Bowling was a big deal where I’m from. I remember watching it on the television on Saturdays and taking mandatory bowling lessons in phys-ed, but already when I was in junior high and high school, the bowling lanes were almost always open, the bowling leagues having all but disappeared. Even the informal weekly card clubs my grandma and mom had always belonged to were drying up and dying out.
What I didn’t see when I listened to Skocpol or heard people discussing Putnam is why this social change should matter. There’s something a little silly, after all, in dressing up like your idea of a medieval stonemason or chevalier with all of your friends. At least, that’s what I had always thought. Who needs a regular group of people with whom to bowl? You can just grab a couple friends and go with them. The loss of these groups didn’t seem like a big deal to me. I’m a non-joiner who always feels out of place in any group, anyway. I’ve never even been able to bring myself to go to either of the local alumni clubs that continually bombard me with emails. So, why should any of this matter?
Skopcol and Putnam and others were connecting their work to Tocqueville’s account of the different and overlapping societies that he thought undergirded democracy in the early republic. They were concerned that a democratic society couldn’t survive without the kinds of connections that were formed in voluntary groups like clubs and sporting teams and the like. I’m not a social or political scientist, but as I’ve gotten older—and, no more than during this year—I’ve come to see some of what we’ve lost in the death of so many older forms of socialization.
I don’t mean to be nostalgic. Many of these organizations were exclusionary. The historic racial policies of the Freemasons led Prince Hall to form his own lodge, to take only one example. Racial and ethnic and religious minorities were cut out of organizations and forbidden to join others. And, the way many fraternities and clubs maintained social and power hierarchies wasn’t hard to see as a not-exactly-wealthy kid growing up. However, those who were kept out of one group could form their own clubs, and groups, and leagues, and often did. The excluded could form groups in which they could be included and gain some of the same benefits, whether they were sociality and fraternity, or opportunities for group insurance.
Whatever role these voluntary societies played or play in democracy, they helped connect us to other people, often across groups. In other words, they helped to build the demos. They put people in different, overlapping networks: the softball team, the card club, community theater, the ladies’ auxiliary, in addition to (or in lieu of) extended family and neighborhood networks.
Those last two types of networks have been lost to many of us, as well. When our society has talked about the family, it has mostly been about the nuclear family, as if each group of parents and children was a discrete unit unto itself, hardly better than an atomistic individual. When I reflect on the sitcoms I watched growing up, many of which were reruns of shows from my parents’ childhood, I’m struck by the relative absence of grandparents and aunts and uncles. The nuclear family is presented as a sort of fortress of two-plus against the world, isolated in its own way from, and in competition with, those around. Maybe this just has to do with our mobility, but this isolation is almost celebrated, enough that when someone claims that more than just the nuclear family is needed (“It takes a village”), this is derided. As with the family, so with the neighborhood. Planning decisions going back at least as far as Robert Moses and his followers have sliced up urban neighborhoods with highways to speed access to the suburbs, where others can get out of cars in their garages and enter their houses without having to see other people who live in their sidewalk-free cul-de-sacs. It can be hard even to form bonds with our neighbors even in the best of times. Who, to use an old trope, would now borrow a cup of sugar or milk from a neighbor rather than get in the car and head to the grocery store, or order it from Amazon?
As so many of these older forms of community intermediate between the individual or nuclear family and the state have melted away, we’ve been left poorer and less connected. They’ve been replaced, if they have at all, by virtual communities.
Foremost among these are the communities of social media. These have their purposes. They keep us connected to old friends who are now far away and do with more ease than mail or even phone calls. They also allow us to connect to people we otherwise would never meet, including people at great distances, in the far-flung corners of the world. As great as that is, it is still a connection at greater than arm’s length and often one-dimensional. If you know me through my posts or my selfies, you know only one small part of me. More likely, you know only the way I wish to present myself. If that one part or one presentation ceases to be interesting or appealing to you, you’re unlikely to know the other parts that might keep us connected. You’ll have seen my hot takes on the problem of evil and seen pictures of my dogs, but you might not know much more. As I learned when I deleted Facebook almost a decade ago, when you leave a platform, you also leave most of the connections you’ve made there. Sometimes even people you’ve known in-person fall away when the ease of a platform is removed.
In spite of these limitations, real and meaningful connections can happen in the space of the internet. I’ve made friends through Twitter and there’s a retired grandfather in Florida I’m quite fond of whom I only know through Words with Friends. Of course, virtual relationships can have real effects in the world, for good and ill. Websites and social media have been instrumental in attempted and successful revolutions. They have empowered social movements and allowed for the coordination of protests and demonstrations. They have also fed conspiracy theories.
Even if we can make friendships that live wholly in the virtual realm, they take a kind of effort that makes them rarer than the organic connections that can happen with those with whom we interact around a card table, or on a team, or running a fundraising supper. I suspect, too, that they are fragile in ways that in-person friendships aren’t. At least when they have formed around some shared commitment or interest, they are less likely to survive a change in the attitude to that commitment or interest on either side. If we became friends on Facebook because of our shared love or disdain for some political leader, for instance, and then you start to change your opinion, there’s not much left to keep us together.
So, here we are in 2020, many of us stuck at home with only intermittent sorties into the wider world, and feeling lonely. We’re shown pictures and stories about worse pandemics, especially the Spanish flu of 1918-1920. We’re told that people made it through that and put up with even greater restrictions than we are being asked to endure now. Nothing about that makes our loneliness any less intense. Nor does it make us bristle any less at the restrictions we’re under.
That’s at least in part because we are isolated even in the best of times. These restrictions haven’t just made us alone. It’s not like when you’re away from your loved ones and you feel their absence, but you are still connected. No, I think, it’s something worse than that. It’s the realization that there isn’t much connection at all, so that we hunger even more for the scraps of it we get in our passing daily interactions. We’re not just alone, we’re atomized and isolated and lonely.
Obviously, this makes us all want to get back out and to our regular lives. I’ll admit that many restrictions have seemed entirely gratuitous to me, more security theater than actual public health measures. In the tier we in California are currently in, some of the restrictions and classifications are nonsensical and contradictory, but they allow officials to at least be seen to be doing something. Lack of faith in our leaders —why are outdoor playgrounds so dangerous but outdoor gyms aren’t—makes us feel that our efforts are futile in addition to making us more lonely.
Our isolation comes into play again here. From the beginning of lockdown and stay-at-home and social distancing measures and mask requirements, one constant refrain from skeptics has been some form of, “You can stay at home or wear a mask if you’re worried, but I’m healthy and not worried, so I’ll do what I like. You take care of yourself and I’ll take care of me.” This response resonates for many with a rugged American individualism. It’s another instance of the “Don’t tread on me” attitude. It is also an instance of isolation. Because we don’t feel connected to other people, we are able to separate their interests entirely from our own. The people who are worried aren’t people we bowl with or see at the lodge or clean the temple with. They aren’t people we see on our walks around the neighborhood. They aren’t people we stood beside at the soup kitchen or did a park cleanup with, because we don’t do those kinds of things as much anymore. That means, all too often that they aren’t really people to us, at least not in the way that we (and maybe our spouses and kids) are people to us. So, what do they matter?
With vaccinations beginning, the end of the pandemic is on the horizon, still distant, but close enough to begin to make us hopeful again. I want to see the end of this pandemic and I want to see students and colleagues and local businesspeople (if their businesses make it) and friends and neighbors again and shake their hands and hug them. My biggest hope is that we use the experience of this focused isolation as an impetus to work on rebuilding communities and connections. It’s no good pouring new wine in old skins, but I worry that if we don’t do something to connect with one another we won’t make it through the next disaster or pandemic or decade together.