Jonathan Brun

Isolation in a modern world

Study after study demonstrate the importance of community to your personal health (TED talk). When you live amongst family and friends, you live longer and better. However, our modern society has slowly lured us away from community – suburbs box us in and make us drive, promising jobs pull us to new cities, and the glamour of the runway makes the grass look greener in New York, Paris or elsewhere. With our international lives, moving from one place to another, we sacrifice health in the name of money. To comfort ourselves in new places, we turn to familiar faces. In some ways, we have replaced common human faces with common corporate ones. When I lived in Beijing, I was happy to eat at MacDonald’s or Starbuck’s, just for the sake of comfort and familiarity – they were like family members.

But do not confuse the friendly neighbourhood corporation for your friend, in fact, you probably don’t really want to get to know them. The Harvard Business review points out that we prefer the ATM to the teller, the online shop to the physical one, and self-service stations to full service ones. We like the image and experience of the Starbuck’s, but not the people working there. We just don’t want to be touched, we want our bubble to stay inflated.

Slavok Zizek, the crazy european intellectual made a fascinating point during a recent interview on Al Jazeera English. He said, and I am paraphrasing, that what we want today is “decaffeinated people”. By that, he means that our society is full of decaffeinated products – decaf coffee, non-alcoholic beer, fat-free cake and so on. We remove the poison from the things we love to make them more edible. Similarly, we are interested in our fellow humans in only so much as we are interested in top most layer of their personality, free of any darkness, unpleasantness or ambiguity.

It is easier than ever to move through life without interaction with your fellow citizens. With a bit of money, you can easily detach yourself from your local community. In our increasingly international economy, people fly and move from one city to another, with scarcely a second thought. I remember, when I worked in Pisa, Italy for a summer one of my coworkers, a 40-year-old man made a 2 hour commute every day to work. I asked him, “Why don’t you move closer to work?”. His response was that in Italy, you simply did not move. He grew up in his village and that is where he lived, he knew the people, his family, the stones and the buildings – his natal village and him were one. Despite having travelled the world, I too have trouble seeing myself living somewhere other than Montreal.

Of course the problems above are mainly tied to the wealthy and the very poor – those who flee their natal villages for the slums of Beijing or Mumbai and the rich who bounce from Hong Kong to Paris. Wealth allows you to distance yourself from people and problems. You can become isolated as you have the ability to pay people to do things for you, things that are fundamental to being human – cooking, farming, taking care of children. Of course, it is not rocket science to see this type of life becomes very void, very fast. To die alone is no fun and you rarely hear of people taking their retirement to spend more time with their possessions. People are meant to live with people, for better or worse. We are messy animals who bark and fight and quiver, but we are social ones and the sooner we realize this, the happier we will be.

Join a club, volunteer, or heck, even join an online community.

Published on November 30, 2010