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because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners
Isaiah 61: 1
Loneliness appears to be a peculiarly modern phenomenon. In many ways, the very word seems to capture the spirit of the age we are in: inspiring songs, providing material for books and movies, and acting as a muse to countless artists.
It's not as if people never felt lonely in previous centuries, but it's just that the theme never really dominated the cultural landscape as much as it does today. Although one must admit that it was Shelley who said it better when he wrote, 'our sweetest songs are those that speak of our saddest thoughts.'
However, the nineteenth century when Shelley wrote those words was a different era altogether when the private and the personal were not placed under the microscope with the same unequivocal passion with which it's done today. Sadness and sad thoughts were meant for either quiet contemplation, and shared only with near and dear ones. Most importantly, the community (in all its various forms) acted as a great cushion against the pressures individuals may have faced through isolation.
Of course, there have been people who complained about the excesses of the community, of having to live under its dictates and suffering its consequences, expressed frustration of having to lose one's individuality under the strong identity that the community gave. And there are many such stories of the individual struggle against the community whether it was the nation state, organised religion, the head of the family, gender stereotypes and what have you.
However, it was only after the mid-twentieth century that we began to see a gradual but steady dismantling of the community's hold over people's lives. The cultural, political and economic forces that were unleashed around this time further strengthened this drift towards autonomy and independence.
Now this particular drift towards autonomy and independence has been a good thing especially in the political sphere, and more so, in allowing people to be less tethered to restrictive social norms and conventions. It has enabled people to be themselves, to be free to act on what they believe, and make decisions based on their convictions. At least, that's the broad idea but the reality is a different matter and can be taken up for another discussion.
But then, again, taken at its extreme, this drift has also given rise to a 'me-first' mentality that values the individual above everything else. As long as my needs, my desires, my feelings, my this, my that is taken care of, then that's all that matters. Me first, others later, much, much later.
Technology has further helped in speeding up this development, and the 'i' in the iPod, for instance, clearly shows who takes pride of place in this universe.
Now if we multiply this mentality many times over, then, we get an idea of the kind of mindset that defines the popular mood. It's the kind of mood that believes in the primacy of one's own need above all. It has also driven consumerism to be the powerful force that it is, and fueled the economic crisis into the devastating tragedy that it became for many people. Satisfaction of one's need NOW even if it means living on borrowed money and even if it involves inability to pay for it.
In such an environment, the individual remains adrift in the social sphere and John Donne's 'no man is an island' remains nothing more than an idea than a fact. Set adrift like a plank of wood on an ocean, individuals begin looking for connections that can bind them and lead them to the mainland. And if 'me-first' is a priority for the majority, then the search for the mainland remains an eternal quest.
It is basically a return to the primal need for community, to belong to a group, to be part of something that's larger than themselves. Urbanisation fueled large scale migration from the country side into cities where being a stranger and living anonymous lives became a norm and not an exception. Technology made physical contact with other individuals almost redundant and unnecessary.
As a result, loneliness became a natural outcome of this process, and began defining the mental and cultural landscape of the contemporary world in which we exist. The only way this trend can be reversed is when we put an end to putting ourselves first, and start looking at others for a change.
It is possible and may require a nudge or two, but the question is, will we do it? Or are we going to spoil it by asking, what's in it for me?