“I am just dying to be with people; the cabin fever is making me nuts.” Such sentiments are an all-too-common component of our conversations these days. The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its normative features of social distancing, have certainly inundated citizens with a real sense of loneliness. Even the introverts of the world have had enough.
This quasi-novel facet of our being disconnected provides an opportunity for a deeper reflection on its unsettling existential truth.
Coincidentally, a number of recent books have sought to address the declining breakdown of social connections in contemporary American (and Western) life. Recent books written by Jean Twenge, Susan Pinker, and Sherry Turkle have provided substantial social scientific data that speaks to the rapid decline of face-to-face association in America. Moreover, these authors describe the profound psychological and physiological effects that this social disconnection has upon individuals. Their arguments detailing the need for personal, embodied forms of association echo the work of notable American social theorists who have detailed the decline of communal life in democratic societies, namely, David Riesman, Robert Putnam, and Robert Nisbet.
The reality of our social breakdown seemed to surround us on all sides. Our cities, towns, and neighborhoods have been built in ways that do not appear as though they were designed for human life and flourishing. We have even constructed tall fences around our homes, along with an abundance of trees to surround us in a sort of military fortress. Front porches were once an essential feature of homes, so as to incline us towards fulfilling our vocation as neighbors, and good stewards of those places where we live. These have given way to the back patio, that place of refuge which has conditioned citizens to seek to be removed from others, detached as a further means for celebrating our individual liberty. How many of us actually know the people who live on our street, especially those right next door?
In one respect, the need for community has been understood within the context of “evolutionary adaptation.”. In this account, human beings have evolved into social creatures for the sake of survival. Thus, the evisceration of American social and political life bespeaks of an evolutionary adaptation that is not being met. In another respect, social scientific literature argues for the centrality of robust local community life so as to prevent an over-reach from a statist government. Such an account views association from the perspective of protection from the real possibility of a Leviathan-type of relationship between individuals and the state.
While these arguments help to illuminate the serious social, psychological, and political effects corresponding to the breakdown of contemporary communal life, there is nonetheless something of a lacuna. The lacuna exists, not so much at the level of description, but more so at the level of explanation. In other words, much of the literature that accurately describes the decline of community in American civic life tends to lack a deeper explanation as to why human beings are in need of association at an ontological or metaphysical level.
Without a reference to human nature, and the specific inclination to live in community as essential for its flourishing, the prescriptive for civic decline can fall on deaf ears.
The drive to live in communion with other persons cuts in two directions. The yearning to be with others, at one level, is grounded in need. We are not sufficient on our own. As we become accustomed to being with others, in proximate and concrete settings, the habits of mutual cooperation and shared responsibility can take root. Moderation and neighborliness come to be actualized only when we experience that enlarged heart for which Alexis de Tocqueville spoke about in Democracy in America. For Tocqueville, it is “the reciprocal action of men upon one another” that initiates the groundwork for building and preserving a real human community.
Within the depths of our own heart we must see that, as Tocqueville goes on to state, we are “not as independent of his fellow as he used to suppose and that to get their help he must often offer his aid to them.”
Additionally, ancient and medieval thinkers understood human beings as “social and political animals.” Observation and experience certainly indicate that non-human animals associate together. However, the kind of community that is characteristic of human beings is different in kind, not just degree. What separates human association from animals is that human beings possess the faculty or power of reason. Human reason provides the capacity for communicating what no other creature can: the true, the good, and the beautiful.
In this light, the lack of self-sufficiency is not a defect of human nature, but is ordered towards developing our capacity for love and friendship. To become “who you are” is not ultimately an act of self-creation. Rather, it is one in which we receive the full truth about ourselves from those sources that exist outside of us. These realities of love and friendship, then, are signs of the abundance and goodness of being human.
And this question of friendship is ever indicative of the fact that human beings are mimetic creatures. God has not only created human beings in His image and likeness, but has specifically given this gift to imitate that which seems impossible: that God has made us for communion with Him. Human sociality is meant to be an imitation of the Trinitarian Sociality, if I can use such a phrase. And so to reiterate a point made earlier, the decline of friendship and a robust social life is not merely some kind of undeveloped evolutionary adaptation. Instead, it is an attack against the very splendor of the Trinitarian life of God to which we are all called.
There are certainly questions regarding the accuracy of the frequently used adage of a “loneliness epidemic.” More substantive research waits to be carried out. And while it is the case that loneliness is not a recent phenomenon, Tocqueville observes that it is one of the most significant and perennial threats to democratic societies. Without a richer account of human nature, and our deep-seated orientation towards friendship and self-gift, we will find it increasingly difficult to escape what Tocqueville called “the solitude of our own hearts.”
Such a condition can allow for technological “connectedness,” but not the joy of embodied communion and development of virtue. Perhaps, more than anything else, this explains why it is that more of us are vitriolic and angry—and simultaneously full of anxiety and depression. The yearning for happiness cannot be fulfilled without other people and grounded in a much more substantive account of the human good.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!