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Our View: Connection

We’re all asking, “Can you hear me now?”

What do Make America Great Again Trump rally attendees, Black Lives Matter protesters and even Jan. 6 insurrectionists have in common?

If you answered, “anger,” you’re partly right. But as any good therapist would, we ask, “And what’s underneath all that anger?”

The answer may very well be loneliness.

Loneliness isn’t just “feeling bereft of love, company, or intimacy. Nor is it just about feeling ignored, unseen, or uncared for,” writes Noreena Hertz in The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart. “It also incorporates how disconnected we feel from politicians and politics, how cut off we feel from our work and our workplace, how excluded many of us feel from society’s gains, and how powerless, invisible, and voiceless so many of us feel ourselves to be.”

Makes a little more sense now, doesn’t it?

MAGA rallies, BLM protests, even the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol gave people an opportunity to feel a part of something important, necessary, even. The events were also tangible proof that their beliefs and concerns were being witnessed by others. People whose status was diminished felt like they were someone who mattered, at least in that moment. Their new – if transient – social identity gave them a sense of meaning and self-esteem.

Loneliness, Hertz says, was the hallmark of this century before the isolation of COVID-19. The use of smart phones and social media; society’s relentless focus on freedom and self-reliance; our contactless business model, in which we speak not with humans but with machines, or are forced to use email, texting or portals to communicate with our doctor, mechanic or bank – all these are causes and symptoms of our pandemic of loneliness. Job interviews are carried out by algorithmic pre-hire assessments, video “interviews” in which no interviewer is present; workplace surveillance contributes to feelings of invisibility, being seen just as a list of metrics: How fast did you do your work? How many bathroom breaks did you take, and for how long?

People are so desperately lonely that they are paying for nonsexual “cuddle sessions,” buying robot dolls as companions, paying $300 to $400 for music festival tickets just to feel connected to others, Hertz writes.

It’s as if everyone is walking around chanting the Verizon commercial meme: “Can you hear me now?”

Hertz makes the case that loneliness is a dire threat not just to the well-being of the individual but to society as well – at work, in the family, in community. She makes a good argument that we must do things together, not just be together, in order to have a sense of community.

If we’ve lost the connections we once had through church, unions, sports teams and the like, we have to find them, even if we have to pay for them – through bookstores and book clubs, coffee shops where knitting groups meet, game salons, in-person exercise classes. Just sharing office space or a condo gym isn’t enough if you’ve got your phone in your hands and your earbuds in. Volunteering with a group to help others or the community – a structured three-hour-monthly commitment in Rwanda called umuganda – is a meaningful way to connect.

Federal, state and local governments have a role to play, Hertz insists. For example, municipalities need to restore shared outdoor spaces that have been denigrated by intentionally hostile architecture in recent decades.

BLM protests, MAGA rallies, even the Jan. 6 insurrection: These events, despite their wildly different motivations, have offered short-lived tinctures of cure for loneliness.

We need to find a real cure that is long-acting, not rooted in suffering or hatred, but an affirmation of humanity. Hertz offers a simple prescription that’s good for starters: Rush less and stop and talk more, so that the answer to the unspoken “Can you hear me now?” is “Yes.”

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