Isolation, the movement killer

Several months ago, I asked some friends, recently returned from Standing Rock, to relay their experiences of camping with 8,000 other activists for three weeks. I had heard that everyone at camp was encouraged to have a job. What was theirs, I wanted to know.

“We walked around and got people to talk to each other.”

My friend explained that even when thousands of people had voluntarily come together for a common purpose, surrounded by barren landscape and opposed by hostile forces, there was still a huge problem with isolation. People were reluctant to introduce themselves to their neighbors and uncomfortable talking to each other about the very reasons they had traveled so far to be there. These are dangerous behaviors.

Isolation is the movement killer. I, personally, have experienced the demoralizing absence of social connection that leads to inaction. I try not to let it gnaw at me, but what can you do? It’s too easy to get lonely. While hell may indeed be other people, nothing more faithfully delivers earthly despair than loneliness.

University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo has been studying the nature of loneliness for the past two decades, connecting it to a number of physical and psychological maladies from depression to heart disease. I find two of his team’s observations unsettling and familiar: 1) Chronic loneliness decreases empathy and increases aversion to social connection, somewhat akin to how starvation suppresses your appetite; and 2) Loneliness is catching. Its spread through populations resembles that of an infectious disease. It is both self-sustaining and contagious.

I’ve watched and contributed to the loneliness that creeps through friend groups and activist networks, degrading the community with its spread. I will quietly experience loneliness, self-isolate, and eventually become hostile to others. The targets of my hostility then experience feelings of rejection and develop loneliness themselves, and the emotional contagion spreads further into the social network. Indeed, research indicates loneliness can spread up to three degrees of separation and that chronic loneliness may be more common now than ever before.

What’s the solution?

According to organizers at Standing Rock, we need to engage each other spiritually. Or, as my mother always advises, go back to church. As irritating as that advice may be at times, she may not be wrong.

Peter Beinart’s recent article in The Atlantic on rising secularism, Breaking Faith, notes that for those Americans who have opted out of attending church, political divisions have become more difficult to bridge and rhetoric more vitriolic. Conservative voters who identify as Christian but do not attend church tend to be more hostile to racial and ethnic minorities. Even between progressive and liberal groups whose political interests are closely aligned (Bernie supporters vs. Hillary supporters, Black Lives Matter vs. longer established African-American leadership), those who do not consider themselves religious are more intolerant of differing political points of view.

Beinart stops short of speculating on the mechanism underlying the connection between secularism and rising intolerance. I wonder, though, if this is a symptom of widespread loneliness among nonreligious people. Research in gerontology has shown that older adults who attend religious services are less lonely and in better health than those who stay home Sunday mornings. Church functions as more than a vehicle for articulating and transferring value systems; it provides community. There are few equivalents as powerful for nonreligious people.

The future looks bleak in a lot of ways, and our ability to organize and connect may be our only salvation. I’m not one to preach that love is the answer. I get very annoyed, in fact, with the “hug it out” approach to social justice so common among activists. All this talk about good vibes and healing leaves me prickly.

Maybe there’s something to it, though. Standing Rock was, at its heart, a prayer camp. Activists were encouraged to connect with each other over shared spiritual beliefs and to examine how their lives serve a larger purpose.

A similar strategy closer to home could go a long way to alleviating loneliness. Without that connection, we will only continue to be undisturbed by the suffering of our neighbors and bitterly work toward their demise.