The Community Conundrum
The impacts of loneliness on lifespan and healthspan
“Loneliness is different than isolation and solitude. Loneliness is a subjective feeling where the connections we need are greater than the connections we have. In the gap, we experience loneliness. It’s distinct from the objective state of isolation, which is determined by the number of people around you.”
-Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General
Why does community feel so hard?
This has been bothering me a lot. The greatest struggle in my 44 years and sorely highlighted as a focus during lockdown has been trying to feel like part of a true community. Not being around people has allowed for some breathing room to think about why this part of life can be so heartbreakingly difficult to navigate. What even is it?!
My ideas around community have been shaped and affected by, for better or worse, the TV set. A daily dose of Neighbours was like a religion. Dawson’s Creek through Party of Five, This Life and onto The L word, I grew up soaked in the fantasy worlds where the love and connection between the people in close knit groups was palpable. The idea of people watching each other’s backs, being able to argue and come together again felt wonderful at the time, but the one action of switching off the tv left a gnawing emptiness in the chest. Melancholy. These programmes depicted an ever present ever loving community, connected people, never lonely, always somewhere to go.
Oof, I wanted it so bad!
The problem is, this idea of an ideal community I haven’t managed to stumble upon yet. Why is that? Is it not enough effort? Do I not deserve it? Is there something about me? Many of the questions that I have sat with on lonely evenings aged 13 to 44. The answer to those questions have changed as a result of the work around self compassion, and mindfulness, but the question still gets asked. Regularly. It’s the answer’s that are changing.
There’s enough evidence out there now to confidently say that we don’t thrive in isolation and also that we don’t need to be socially isolated to be lonely.
As individuals we may best move forward in life understanding that we alone are in control of our emotions and we alone can control our reactions. Many books have been written since the Stoic philosophers transcribed thoughts to paper. It’s true that seeing ‘obstacles as the way’ (thanks Ryan Holiday) gives us purchase over our lives. What it does not mean is that we should live isolated, totally individual lives. In the past,community has allowed for resilience. Immigrant communities, survivors of mass atrocities – the shared experience that allows people to accept what has happened AND move forward and find joy again. This is a form of resilience.
We surround ourselves with unrealistic, self esteem consuming ideas of what successful lives and relationships are. What if the things we are striving for are deceptive contortions of reality. This isn’t a new concept, we have an idea that social media only presents the best of us, but we also have this idea ,that because everybody kinda knows that, that surely what we are seeing now is actually REAL, because we don’t stand for the bullshit anymore, right?
Nope, we still can’t seem to separate that knowledge from a part of us deep inside that still feels less than. WTAF. The millions of performative posts about ‘you do you’, or ‘be your authentic self’ without action that backs up that statement, a real person behind those posts that embodies the statements they make, It’s disappointing, and makes us feel further removed from a real community. We are consistently lied to and we’re there for it! Gulping down the shit with a smile, because fake ‘being seen’ for a second feels better than not being seen at all.
For me, those posts now allow for some meta practice for self reflection and emotion labelling. I have transitioned through self loathing, via jealousy through irritation to a feeling of compassion for those reaching out to us, they are looking for the same thing we all are.
The irony of performatism being acknowledged and present in the same post still induces nausea, but it’s shorter lived!
Social media, the double edged sword – glistening one moment and dripping with blood the next.
How can we go from posting, to actually being what we want those posts to portray? In this situation ‘faking it until you make it’ doesn’t seem to be an effective strategy. We want to be part of authentic communities where we can speak our minds and be listened to if not always agreed with – where respect comes with honesty and self esteem is fortified. In these communities, we can make mistakes and turn back around to face the room without shame. From this platform our apologies make amends and don’t just shut down difficult situations, we are courageous enough to acknowledge our feelings and then to speak to them!
Reading Scott Peck’s work on community helped outline the framework I needed to process some of my feelings and feelings of loss.
(M. Scott Peck is a psychiatrist who spent years trying to understand fulfilment and community. Author of seminal texts such as ‘The Road Less Travelled’ and ‘The Different Drum’ he suggests that any group of strangers coming together to create a community goes through four distinct and predictable phases).
Mistaking a pseudo community for a true community, without understanding the difference between the two has resulted in a lot of heartache for many. I was so pleased to stumble across this work. It gave me context and hope.
Understanding that maybe we CAN transition from one to the other is frankly, reassuring.
We are all in this to feel seen, to feel listened to and understood. This authentic community isn’t easy to come by. It takes effort and work.
Community is defined as ‘a group of two or more people who, regardless of the diversity of their backgrounds, have been able to accept and transcend their differences. They are able to communicate openly and effectively; and to work together toward common goals, while having a sense of unusual safety with one another.
The essential dynamic of the pseudo community is conflict avoidance.
“Members are extremely pleasant with one another and avoid all disagreement.”
Sacrificed here is: individuality. And to some degree honesty. Why? So we can fit in, be part of something, whatever that thing is…work, the gym etc.
Difference is unacknowledged or ignored. This results in a lot of people smiling at each other, supporting visible needs but yet feeling unseen and not fully understood. Intimacy is sacrificed for false equality and peace. Being really general, careful of your words and being wary of expressing your real feelings is characteristic of this stage. We are working hard to be liked, fit in and veer away from the confrontational.
Reflection on my own experience whilst trying to get to grips with my struggle with community led me to understand that what I lost in doing this was a clear definition of ‘self’. Further delving revealed that I’m also not very good at this part. I often don’t let harmful words pass by unacknowledged, I like to present alternative ideas, outlooks, lived experience and so perhaps my challenging of the status quo has consistently meant that I just don’t ‘pass go’.
It seems insane to keep having to remind people that we are all different. We have been different since this whole world started. But we continue to feel compelled to do so because we don’t feel like other people have really listened. Our experiences of how we got to where we are are different! Race, skin colour, sexuality, money, these things affect opportunity and experience. Trying to fit in with additional barriers which are deemed to be ‘normal’ but which frankly affect how we experience this process of fitting in, magnifies this lack of cohesion with those around us. Cries of ‘no-one cares about that anymore’ do not chime well with what’s happening in the world. We notice a disparity between what people say to us and how people live their lives – this is hard. We wonder -Should I say something about that? Will they still like me if I do?
Agreeing with people may feel like loyalty, but is it? If you are making decisions to ensure harmony within a group of people that you are worried may not be around when you reveal your actual principles, can you blame anyone when they’re not around during the tough stuff?
Many of us are stuck here. Feeling ok, but not brilliant, part of something but maybe just a little empty inside.
Individual differences start to surface, the group almost immediately moves into chaos. What’s happening! Everythings was fine, why did you have to go and say that!
“Individual differences come out in the open and the group attempts to obliterate them. It is a stage of uncreative and unconstructive fighting and struggle. It is no fun. It is common for members to attack not only each other but also their leader, and common for one or more members–invariably proposing an ‘escape into organization’, to even attempt to replace the designated leader. However as long as the goal is true community, organization as an attempted solution to chaos is unworkable.”
The chaos revolves around well-intentioned but unsuccessful and ultimately misguided attempts to shut the situation down. We spend time trying to come up with knee jerk solutions instead of actually listening to each other. Listening, with the primary goal of entertaining another’s point of view, is rarely occurring.
We may hear things that make us feel uncomfortable, we don’t like feeling uncomfortable so we become defensive. When we are defensive we cannot listen. Smaller groups form within the community, backbiting and gossip makes people feel a little less trusting of one another. Reorganisation, performative action makes no real impact. People start to feel unsettled and perhaps start engaging in the thought process this group is not what they thought it was. Being worried that you’d be “too much” if you reveal your opinions. This is a tough stage to transition through.
I think perhaps the hardest stage of all. It doesn’t mean being, or feeling empty. It means discarding our prejudices and preconceived ideas, stopping the judgement, letting go of the protective mechanisms that allow your ego to remain unchallenged. Understanding that our self worth and self esteem which we protect by engendering feelings of contempt for others, superiority, being defensive, can be nourished by listening, vulnerability, honesty.
It seems to me that before we can really be part of an authentic community we must put in the work on ourselves.
Finally! True Community
Working through these ideas in stage three can result in a community that supports each other through all the times. It is a joyful space because it addresses the triumphs and losses in life. The people in the space don’t turn away when someone walks through the door after a bereavement or difficult time because they don’t know what to say. Equally they acknowledge the darkness and don’t dance around it. The dance refuses to acknowledge that person and their reality. Being seen allows for healing to begin.
I would suggest that moving through the stages of being part of a pseudo community and building an authentic one is just plain hard. But ultimately, if we want to feel real love, contentment, compassion and commitment to one another then it’s some hard work that just has to be done. We acknowledge each other, our differences and experiences first (without subdividing ourselves to the point that we are no longer people but a jumble of adjectives) and then we can come together without our differences being central to conversations, because we can really take that they are and have been seen and acknowledged as a given.
This is the first theory that I have come across, I have no doubt there are many other people who have written in many other ways about how to form a true community. It struck me because I can relate to it. I’ve lived it. And not only do I see myself here but I can also see hope for change. Things that I can do. Practical, actionable stuff. Maybe very few people end up in ‘true communities’. But just this interpretation of the ‘stages’ makes me feel much more comfortable in who I need to be to try and cultivate one.
You may be wondering what this has to do with metabolic health, healthspan and longevity. There is a correlation between perceived loneliness and cancer risk, rapid functional decline, dementia risk, heart disease risk, all the things that we wouldn’t wish to endure.
When we are lonely we are less motivated, less likely to exercise, less likely to eat nutritionally dense foods, less likely to have good sleep patterns. We are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, drink alcohol, eat dopamine stimulating food – combinations of sugar and fat.These are the things that move the needle between health and illness.
Living well depends on us understanding that the connection between our physical health and our mental health is real. Mitigating suffering with connection, love, friendship is equally as important and even perhaps paves the way to making great decisions in other areas of our lives. In my opinion it is the bottom of any ‘pyramid’ and perhaps why in 2021 we are still struggling to help people ensure good health by misjudging where we really need to start. Don’t misunderstand me, feeling pain is part of life – physical, emotional , spiritual, but suffering – identifying these emotions as who we are, with Self, not just transient feelings that are passing through, that’s when we can get stuck.
It’s possible to get unstuck.
There are tools available to us, thank goodness.
For more info on these tools check out http://resiliencehealth.co.uk/2020/05/16/651/
The effect of loneliness on cancer mortality. D’ippolito S, Ambrosini E, Shams M, Calì G, Pastorelli DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2017.35.15_suppl.10070
Loneliness in older persons: a predictor of functional decline and death. Perissinotto CM, Stijacic Cenzer I, Covinsky KE. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2012.1993.