A Response to “The Difference Between Being Alone and Being Lonely”

Do we need more community or more individualism?

I was going to respond to this essay by Zat Rana in a comment, but I think it deserves its own post because it represents one of the fundamental questions facing humanity today. Assuming you agree that loneliness and depression are major problems, I want to lay out a framework for understanding two different paths forward society can take. First, a very short history that provides some background for the problem.

A Brief History of Identity

Stage I: Culture

Animals and the earliest humans have an identity that is determined mostly by DNA. Then, as discussed in The Secret of Our Success, humans separated themselves from other animals by developing the capacity for culture.

Culture is like a symbolic mental space. Humans developed ability to create new ways of life, new roles, new identities symbolically. So after the development of culture, an identity is like a point in culture space that defines how a person relates to other people.

Stage II: Self

About 3,000 years ago, a new an interesting thing happened which is described in the book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Basically, people developed the mental concept of self, and instead of just acting out their cultural roles based on instinct (and, perhaps, the voice of their gods), they had to think about decision consciously.

However, due to the increasing complexity of society (probably as a result of the agricultural revolution), people needed to become aware of their identity. In other words, they developed a conscious self, a space for thinking about and deciding what kinds of actions were appropriate based on their place in society.

Stage III: Individual Freedom

About 500 years ago, as described in the book, Mind, Modernity, Madness, society developed the idea of the egalitarian nation in which all people are fundamentally equal. In such a society, the self that previously had the responsibility for deliberating over particular decisions was now responsible for actually choosing an identity. Along with this came the idea that there is a seed of true identity inside us that people must find and express. In other words, society doesn’t provide an identity for you. You have to make it yourself.

A lot of freedom came with this new responsibility. New concepts arose like romantic love (love that is based on/essential to defining your true identity), ambition (following your inner sense of self to define a new place in society), happiness (satisfaction with your chosen/achieved identity), depression (dissatisfaction with your identity).

You might argue that these concepts existed before. In stage I, when people believed that fate was decided by the gods, they certainly experienced some sort of joy and sadness. But there since there was no personal responsibility as we understand it now, there wasn’t really guilt or pride or other complex emotions that relate to individual decision making.

Similarly, in stage II, people experience guilt and pride, but since they weren’t really responsible for choosing their identity they didn’t feel the same kind of pride (or dissatisfaction) with their identity that leads to what we understand as true happiness (or depression).

Loneliness

Ok, so what does all this have to do with loneliness. Zat says this:

To really understand the issue, we have to make a distinction between two human needs: a need to belong, and a need for personal intimacy.

In the past, people had a need for belonging, but it was satisfied (maybe even over satisfied) by a culturally dictated sense of self that specified exactly where everyone belonged and how they should behave based on their position. Since the need was satisfied, it wasn’t really felt as a need. People wouldn’t have understood the existential loneliness that stems from not knowing where you ought to fit in society.

As for personal intimacy, the idea of romantic love (i.e., the kind of love that affirms your identity) doesn’t make sense unless people have a deep need for their identity to be affirmed. And this need doesn’t arise until people have the responsibility for creating their own identity.

In other words, personal intimacy is necessary because culture no longer dictates who we are. Culture does delineate a set of identity possibilities, but it doesn’t (at least explicitly) force anyone to adopt a particular location within that identity space.

Of course, by now we all know that even a “free” society like ours doesn’t provide everyone with an equal opportunity to find their ideal role. Some would even argue that the whole system is really all about maintaining the status of the elites. But people still feel like they ought to be socially mobile, and that they ought to find their true selves and then act out the role they have chosen.

When Blaise Pascal says we ought to find ourselves by sitting quietly in a room alone, he is affirming the idea that somewhere deep inside sits a true identity just waiting to come out. Loneliness must be conquered by finding this true identity.

When Kurt Vonnegut says that loneliness can only be cured in communities, he is arguing that at the end of the day, our identity can only be granted to us by a community. We can’t just choose our own identity since identity only makes sense in a social context. It represents the definition, and the behaviors appropriate to, a particular point in culture space.

The End of Psychology

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published a remarkable book called The End of History and the Last Man. In it he argued that after the Cold War, history was pretty much settled. Although different countries were still at different points of development, it was pretty clear that Liberal Democracy was the end point to which everything would converge.

This was “not not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

I read Zat Rana’s article as something like a claim to the end of psychology that corresponds to Fukuyama’s end of history. Namely, the end of psychology is the self as responsible for choosing its own identity. As society gets bigger and more complex, there will be more and more freedom and the only way to handle this freedom is to look deeper and deeper inside oneself.

But Vonnegut provides an alternative future. Instead of converging on the self, the future will collapse unless we find a way to integrate the role of the community in helping human beings find their identity.

What should young people do with their lives today? …[T]he most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.

Why daring? Because it represents an the unknown future. In the past, people had no choice, they were handed their identity. In the present, people have a false choice. They think they can choose their identity but they are mistaken. Identity is not a thing that an individual can grant to themselves.

We have unleashed this monster of individualism and there is no return. We all have inside us now a self that feels the ultimate responsibility for choosing an identity. The rise of the modern self has devastated the social institutions that once constructed identities for us: the clan and the church. The nuclear family (and romantic love) now strain under the weight of providing us an identity, but they do not have a sufficiently broad foundation. We necessarily look beyond our nuclear families to find ourselves (i.e., to our careers).

Yet Vonnegut gives us the slightest hint of something different, what he calls “stable communities.” We can’t really go back to the clans and churches of the past because they were not built for an age of individualism. Instead we must look forward and be “daring.” We must consciously and deliberately create communities that have the power to give us identities while at the same time empowering us to choose.

Thus, we can only create identity indirectly by creating a community and empowering that community to grant us identity.

Looking across the social landscape of our modern world, I do not see such communities. They must be built, and they can only be built by Vonnegut’s “young people.” They must be built by people who understand the immense challenge of creating an identity, who understand that attempts to do so in a room by yourself will always fall short, yet who understand that it must be done.

In my view, it is the Millennial generation that will begin to build these new stable communities — these new cities, churches, and families that have the power to grant fully conscious human beings an identity. But not unless they can learn to ignore the type of empty advice being given to them. For example, here is this from another medium article:

Live in the present moment, enjoy each moment, listen to your heart, trust yourself, connect with your true self and your unique talents… let go and trust.

Let go and trust what? I read this as another version of Pascal’s man sitting in a room. Trusting yourself is all you need. But ultimately I reject the idea that we can create satisfactory identities this way. We cannot find ourselves. It cannot be done, no matter how empty the room or how hard we look. History cannot converge ever inward, because an individual outside the context of a community is completely empty. There is nothing there.

So we must create a new apparatus, a new science, that is capable of understanding and producing a modern identity. And this apparatus will look very much like the old apparatus: a stable community. But the new communities must be capable of doing something that the old ones never could do: provide us an identity in a world where we must choose for ourselves.

This is a seemingly intractable paradox. And as far as I am concerned, the end of psychology is not in sight because the fundamental question of identity in the modern age remains unresolved.

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