These days, when we pass a person on the street we usually don‘t say hello or even look them in the eye. In the city, we live in a world of strangers, the vast majority of whom we have very little to no personal relationship with whatsoever. Occasionally we may get into brief, interesting exchanges with the person behind the counter at the cafÃ© or the grocery store, but these exchanges are predicated upon our purchase of something the shop is selling. This makes me wonder if such conversation is merely a byproduct of the capitalist machine in motion, a human byproduct of commerce whereby the exchange of cash sparks the expressive faculties while also providing an adequate social lubricant. While it is, of course, natural for human beings to talk and communicate with one another, unless we have a good excuse or reason to do so we seem to maintain our typical everyday stranger status with the entire general public surrounding us.
I don‘t think we can underestimate the impact that living in a world of strangers has upon our psychological state of being. At times, I find it to be painfully awkward to continually encounter other people with whom I have absolutely no personal relationship. At these times, I almost always feel a sense of uncertainty; Should I say hello? Or does it even matter? The everyday atmosphere of a general lack of interest or caring between modern citizens can be overwhelming. But how can we care about other people who we don‘t even know, when we live in a social context that supports a state of chronic alienation?
I know, I know ... you‘re thinking, â€•Well, but we‘re all supposed to develop our own group of friends, family, and acquaintances who meet our needs for human interaction, for fun, love, and affection.â€– However, I must retort—notice how in talking about alienation I'm imagining a relationship of dialogue?!?—it doesn‘t always work that way. Statistics on depression and suicide demonstrate that meeting our own needs is an insufficient and tragedy-inducing agenda for a significant portion of all of us—over one million people commit suicide around the world every year.
One million ...
Perhaps the assumption of complete self-care is just a preposterous joke based on the Western ideal of the heroic â€•rugged individualâ€– who is ultimately responsible for meeting all of his own needs. As a citizen of the modern world, what does it mean, and what does it feel like, to be just one more human being lost in the crowd, in the midst of thousands of others?
Indeed, the tribe—an interconnected group of related individuals aspiring towards the mutual well-being of one another—has now become the mob—a collective of individuals who are, for the most part, unrelated and uninterested in one another, unless such interactions empower the individual to obtain their own financial, sexual, or social status-based objectives. I am not saying that tribal people were not selfish or self-interested, only that they appeared to have maintained an overall mutually reciprocal relationship with the larger community group in which they lived.
Although we boast of all the amazing benefits of modern living, there are many significant shortcomings in our having â€•evolvedâ€– from tribal to technological society, from a way of life centered around people, planet, and community, to a way of life focused sharply on the individual and our ability to manipulate machines. Tribal societies function as a sort of unified whole, their members relying implicitly upon one another to meet their needs and fulfill their aspirations. Consider these words of the Pomo Indians of Northern California, from the book The Way We Lived, by Malcolm Margolin:
What is a man? A man is nothing. Without family he is of less importance than that bug crossing the trail, of less importance than spit or dung ... A man must be with his family to amount to anything with us.
How does it affect us when the majority of others who we continually encounter are strangers? Perhaps this is why so many homeless or otherwise vagrant and lonely individuals are found talking to themselves, or behaving as if they really are talking to another person who is not, objectively speaking, present. In a world of strangers, where few are ever interested in who you are, one may need to fantasize imaginary friends just to keep oneself company. Perhaps the insanity from which these people suffer is merely a psychosis born of the madness of alienation, the modern age insanity of strangers living in a strange land.
Like Morrison sang:
People are strange when you're a stranger
Faces look ugly when you're alone
Women seem wicked when you're unwanted
Streets are uneven when you're down
There is an ongoing sense of insecurity, an awkward, anxiety-pain associated with being in the world when we are alone and surrounded by strangers. The overall lack of emotional warmth or interest, the lack of familiarity and communication, and the lack of interpersonal relationship between people in public is truly bizarre. It's uncanny how rarely we ever comment upon this ongoing condition; like fish swimming in water we've become so acclimated to the sea of strangers surrounding us that we usually don't even notice it. This generally isolating influence of the modern world may be responsible for many of our shared woes, among them mental disease, depression, social disorder, suicide, crime, and homelessness.
How are we to resolve these problems in a world which does not promote communal harmony or intimate interactional engagement?
Perhaps all these sicknesses are variations on the theme of homesickness, â€•homeâ€– being the original sense of familiar belonging, place, care, and love that many other cultures have nurtured for eons. Perhaps this sickness stems from our prevailing modern myth of the individual. However, to change our conceptions of selfhood from anything other than a primary focus on the individual is at absolute odds with the current thrust of capitalism.
At times, I feel so incredibly sad, so profoundly alone in the midst of countless other uninterested, isolated, individuals, as if we are all islands separated by the vast sea of loneliness. It incites a gash in my spirit, a rip in my being, a tear through my heart. In the general populace of the public, we are all so inconceivably disconnected from one another, so utterly alien—related only through the goings-on of commerce and survival—it is like an absurd existential joke.
Alone in the general public of modern Western society there is absolutely no hint of communal life, no genuine human contact or sharing. Indeed, our collective human condition has become a horrifyingly painful nightmare. The pressure placed on each individual in this society to carry their own weight and take care of themselves, in a virtual vacuum of truly intimate or communal humanity, is insane. In order to survive, most of us swallow the pain, don't talk about it, and make pretend it doesn't exist.
To admit that we feel pain would make us vulnerable to further attack or hurt. So we become trapped in a doublebind and must somehow cleverly work our way out of the situation while also finding a way to make ourselves feel better, to ease the pain, and furnish some kind of meaningful human connection.
The modern world, for all its excess of activity and action, has become a painful and lonely place, a mechanical conundrum where services are provided and products exchanged between unrelated individuals—or, more recently, simply between humans and machines.
Where is the heart or compassion in any of this? The dark shadow of our claim to â€•Freedom in Americaâ€– is the overwhelming isolation of the individual. Though we are continually told that we need to succeed on our own as individuals, in reality, succeeding alone is ultimately unsatisfying. And though politicians go on and on about the significance of the family, in truth, the very structure of our society splits the family apart, reducing each member down to the isolated part they play as individuals.
In essence, we are now a culture of individuals in pursuit of our own happiness.
We don't feel the full impact of the family, the group, or the society anymore. We don't even really live in communities anymore, we live in municipalities, rapidly expanding conglomerations of social services and technological structures intended to feed narcissistic, solitary consumers.
As human beings, when we feel distant and unrelated to one another—through a lack of belonging, caring, familiarity or interrelationship—our normal capacity to function breaks down, we become psychologically, emotionally, and cognitively distressed. When our interpersonal needs are chronically unmet, we become upset, angry, and depressed. We act out against a world that has not provided what we need—either expressing our anger and discontent at this world that does not appear to care for us, or suffering our disconnection from others in near-suicidal silence and alienation.
Socially, we ignore or deny our loneliness and emotional deprivation, out of shame, false pride, and fear of further humiliation and/or rejection. Collectively, as well, we ignore the causes of these painful problems that are built into the structure of our society.
Our general response is to treat depression medically with a pill that one can purchase. Isn‘t this amazing! While we suffer from a lack of meaningful human interaction and involvement, our socially sanctioned solution is also a capitalist solution, a consumer-based solution, a solution whose context and function are the same as those of the problem it portends to resolve—that of an impersonal, pseudo-relationship in which a pill is expected to address the ailments of the heart and soul.
Pills that alter our brain chemistry, pills that also impart new chemical imbalances—manifesting in â€•side-effectsâ€– such as sexual dysfunctions, insomnia, and constipation— cannot be the final solution to our social deficits and psychological problems. Sometimes pills can temporarily relieve problems that are deeply ingrained in the structures of our psyches, problems that are widespread, chronic, and cultur-ally-induced, problems that also demonstrate our need to reevaluate our social structures and functioning, alerting us to significant shortcomings in our modern way of life.
But instead of looking more deeply into the source of our collective problems—an activity that could produce more long-lasting change—we seek the easy way out: a magical, medical â€•pill-solution,â€– supported by psychiatrists, doctors, and, of course, the corporate pill-producing, pill-pushing backers of commercial media—a solution which is very rarely, if ever, a resolution. â€•Just take this little pill and poof all your problems will disappear!
Perhaps the enormity of our collective, social and psychological problems are just too much for us to grapple. How can we admit that there are such tragic flaws in our basic functioning or in the makeup of our beloved social institutions; and, even if we do, how could we change these structures in ways that would recreate a world with less suffering and more compassion in action?
Perhaps all collective problems are just unavoidable, part and parcel of any imperfect human society, and we need to accept that we are an imperfect people who have manifested an imperfect world, and leave it at that. Perhaps our best course of action is to admit that we are merely human, that the best we can do is be honest with ourselves and with one another, let go of the denial of our mutual human suffering, accept it for what it is, and let the authentic encounter with suffering open our hearts to compassion for ourselves and the world.
For a world in pain, composed of a disjointed and confused people, perhaps the best answer is compassion. For when we suffer from a lack of relatedness, a lack of caring, belonging, love, and unity, compassion in action is what we need. How else will we heal or become whole? Therefore, we must learn to cultivate compassion for ourselves and, as improbable as it may seem, for the society of strangers in which we live.
We seem to be able to increase our communal compassion when we have a common enemy—as in times of war or natural disasters—through which we identify a common wound, a common threat, and a common goal. Is it possible to create a compassionate society through pro-active, affirmative, and peaceful means, without the unifying bond of disasters or the polarizing catastrophe of war?
While plausibility is questionable of creating a more compassionate society while we function under the rule of capitalism, in which competition is the key principle and motivating impetus; it is essential that we do. Although survival is an instinctual drive, and the will to power an everpresent force, compassion and loving kindness for ourselves and the world of sentient beings are the evolutionary and conscious alternatives, and could be our prime priorities.
Early on in his illustrious career, the world‘s most innovative psychologist, C. G. Jung, perceived this when he wrote, â€•Where love rules, there is no will to power, and where power predominates, love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other. In essence, for life to have meaning, and perhaps for life to continue at all, we must evolve our minds and our society to functional states based on compassion, on awareness of and concern for others, not just ourselves. For what meaning does a life of ego-aggrandizement and self-isolation carry? Whatever meaning it might glean is lethally limited by loneliness.
Perhaps when we‘re able to realize that as a human race and society we have become estranged from one another, when we‘re able to see this fragmented world for what it is, when we accept the pain of the world as our own pain and see our hearts in the hearts of others, when we‘re able to recognize that every one of us is essentially floating in the same boat, when we‘re able to walk down the street and feel our own footsteps resounding from other peoples feet, then, perhaps, we will begin to learn the value, the reality, and the necessity of compassion as the essential human capacity that will heal us from the temporary state of fragmentation into which we have fallen.