Every day I am becoming more aware that our cultural environment is damaging to our well-being. “Going with the flow” — being “normal” — in our world today will take us to a place where we are physically unhealthy, massively stressed-out, spiritually cynical and disengaged, depressed, and addicted to something or other.
I was reminded of this when I came across an editorial in The Guardian (a UK Newspaper). Author George Monbiot takes a look at what’s happening in our world, and points to the system itself — our way of living — as the heart of the problem:
“What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness? Yet plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness now strike people down all over the world…
“There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.”
This social isolation is built into the systems we’ve created. So many things in our society emphasize competition, rather than collaboration and community:
“The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.
“Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.”
We’ve heard this before: life in western society today is stressful and competitive. The word that keeps coming up, as a summary of the source of so much of what ails us, is isolation. Monbiot goes on to point out that isolation affects us not only emotionally, but also physically:
“It’s unsurprising that social isolation is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat. It’s more surprising to discover the range of physical illnesses it causes or exacerbates. Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%.”
My wife is a therapist, trained with a focus on the psychology of Alfred Adler. One of Adler’s key foundational principles was the importance of what he called “social interest.” Social interest and social engagement were understood to be key building blocks to mental health, and a life of flourishing. He writes (in 1926):
“Since true happiness is inseparable from the feeling of giving, it is clear that a social person is much closer to happiness than the isolated person striving for superiority. Individual Psychology has very clearly pointed out that the deeply unhappy, the neurotic, and the desolate person stem from among those who were deprived of being able to develop the feeling of community, the courage, the optimism, and the self-confidence that comes directly from the sense of belonging. This sense of belonging … can only be won by being involved, by cooperating, and experiencing, and by being useful to others. Out of this emerges a lasting, genuine feeling of worthiness.” – Alfred Adler
So true. Going back to the Monbiot article, here’s where things get really interesting. What’s the solution? What do we need to do to change things? Monbiot’s article doesn’t say much about the solution. Its focus is on articulating the problem. The final paragraph, however, is suggestive:
“This [problem] does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous.”
This is the message that people in recovery have been emphasizing for years: isolation kills. We need people to support us, and we need people we can support. Isolated people do not stay sober. We need community for our recovery.
This is the message we emphasize in our churches: we need each other. Christianity is not a solo sport. We need community for our faith.
I’m sharing this article, not because the bottom line is anything we don’t already know. I’m sharing this because I think it’s VERY telling that a thoroughly secular newspaper is running a story about this, and offering such a sweeping critique of our society. Think about what’s being said here:
It’s not that our society is working okay, and that people in it are a little too lonely and isolated. No, the problem is the society itself. It’s how we live. It’s what we accept as ‘normal.’ The hyper-stressed, consumerism-focused, and individualistic way of live that we call ‘normal’ is killing us — emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
To put this another way:
If we’re going to have long term recovery, if we’re going to have a joyful spiritual life, if we’re going to engage in sustainable service to God and others … we’ve got to radically challenge the ‘normal’ way of living in our society.
We can’t live the way everybody else is living, and just add a meeting or two. There’s got to be more to our recovery, more to our spirituality than that.