On loneliness and alienation

By Steve Bracken

More and more across the Western world, people are being concerned about rising mental health issues and loneliness amongst young people. Luke has written several posts on suicide and suicide prevention already from his experiences, a topic adjacent to this one. Given that I also have some personal experience in this area, I thought it would be a useful exercise to reflect on it and share my opinion on the matter.

If you listened to our podcast episode on education, you will no doubt have heard that when I was 17, I dropped out of school on the first day of term, year 13. Because of the timing of this event and the academic year, this meant that I spent the best part of a year at home, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but pass the time. Because I didn’t have much contact with my friends from school, I spent the year in relative exile. I was always a distant, quiet kind of child who spent more time with books and toys (mainly toys) than with people, so when I got older, I gravitated more towards the online space and ended up spending less time with my school friends.

By the time I reached the Sixth Form (age 16), I was very alienated from the school as a whole, for a number of reasons including those mentioned in TIJGS#20, so I struggled to motivate myself for the intense change of pace that was year 12, and ended up doing very poorly in my exams. The school were caught completely unprepared, and they told me to come back and speak to them on the first day of year 13. So I spent the summer in a state of shock and denial, and I returned on the first day to be presented with an ultimatum: repeat the year or leave. This to me was a betrayal, as the school had promised many things to me and of me, and when the time came to deliver, they defaulted. Since I felt completely alienated from the school at this point, I chose the latter option. A choice that I would later realise was one of the best choices I ever made, a clear, concrete example of creative destruction in my life, but as with all forms of change, for every blessing they bring, they also bring challenge in equal measure. I was left, at the beginning of the academic year, rudderless.

So when it came to pass that I would drop out in dramatic fashion, I severed my ties with school completely. I meekly applied to various apprenticeships to appease my parents who were still reeling from the experience, but spent most of my time at home, as a NEET. I felt quite ashamed by this fall from grace, and so I would only interact with people I knew from school in very fleeting encounters around my home town. The only regular human contact I had for the whole year was my parents and my online friends. My parents both worked every weekday, and my online friends would also be around at very irregular hours, so there were a large number of hours where I would be completely alone in the house.

My mother would come home early on a Monday, and take me out to lunch. This was the best time of the week, because I could talk to her about what I was doing and where I was going. She was my therapist and my life coach for that year, both pushing me to keep going, whilst encouraging me about my current circumstances.

After two months with very little action or success on my part I was getting increasingly demotivated and pessimistic. Then I went to an open evening with a college several miles away. I was quite reluctant at first but went at the behest of my mother. Various people at my school had sneered at the college, as they catered mainly to children of a low income background with unimpressive academic records, but I was impressed by the enthusiasm they greeted me with, so I enrolled for the next year. Still, however, this left me without a purpose for over half a year, so although I was no longer directionless, I was still stuck at home, becalmed. I was freshly motivated by going to college, but I still felt deeply alone most of the time.

College came about, and I immediately noticed the differences from the school. I found myself older than most of the other students, roughly what I expected. This turned out to be an advantage, because many looked up to me as a role model. The classes were a lot more dynamic and intimate, with a noticable difference in attitude from the lecturers towards the students. It was much more similar university seminars than the school was. I found that I was much closer to the other students at college than I was at school. This is partly because the people enrolling in college for the most part also had to leave their old friends behind, but also because we were all enrolled on the same course, and saw each other much more often, so the new groups that formed were more harmonious and inclusive as a result. I felt much better then, because there was a real sense of camaraderie that was very much missing from the school. There was only one problem: each of us lived in a different town, and so it was very difficult to socialise outside of college. Even here however, there was something social to be gained:

In order to get to college, I had to spend upwards of an hour on a bus each day. This meant that I also ended up making friends with other regulars on the bus, which I wouldn’t otherwise have met. Even here there was a sense of camaraderie, for the busses were usually unreliable at best. This meant that we got to know each other relatively well, but still outside of college and the bus, there were those few hours each day were I felt very alone.

Even now, in university, I sometimes feel very lonely, despite being surrounded by friends. There are times when I feel less alone doing work or reading a book than at a party. Clearly then, loneliness isn’t just a problem with being alone, for there are some groups, such as monks who willingly choose lives of solitude, and they do not feel the same sensation. This makes me think that there is another component to loneliness, for loneliness is not simply being alone; for me, the brief moments of solitude that punctuate my day can often be a blessing of self-reflection and serenity. This loneliness that I am describing then is not solitude, but alienation: it is a metaphysical belief that you are not only alone, but that everyone else is not alone, or, at the very least, contented. It is not loneliness, but alienation that we should be working together to overcome.

Karl Marx famously said that the problem with capitalism is not that it doesn’t produce or improve the standards of living for the workers, but that it alienates the workers by requiring them to produce the goods that they then buy with the money they earned. Although Marx likely never met a working-class person, and many of the working classes of the time were quite content with meagre ambition, I think that there is validity in the concept of alienation, but today, it is not just the working classes who are alienated. Many amongst the upper and middle classes spend much of their youth on a course of evasion and self-destruction, desparately scared to look at themselves in the mirror, lest they realise what they are doing.

This feeling of alienation comes mainly from the negative effects of social media, that is, the second-handedness of social media: looking at other people’s portrayals of their lives, and asking why their life isn’t like that, or desparately trying to create their own narcissistic image of their lives to act as a mask to portray to others. This is not a product of social media, but social media has become its conduit, for companies succeed when they create products that are of value to the people. The meteoric rise of social media is the true reflection of the state of many people’s self-worth: a construction for society, not for yourself.

The French post-modernists criticised modernity for creating form over substance, but one result of this has been that in today’s post-modern society, we see exactly this phenomena being perpetuated by corporations, journalists and artists alike through the social media landscape. I think that this new, bitter and cynical media environment is definitely contributing to alienation for many, for people are far more likely to be less open if they feel like their very identity is under attack. The environment of fear and hysteria that is being created by sensationalist news and social media is driving people into despair and loneliness by driving a wedge between them and their loved ones in the name of clicks, power and social engineering.

In truth, the only thing that can produce real connections with people is being able to be open with them about your thoughts. All lasting and successful relationships, be they romantic, professional or interpersonal, share this quality, for trust is the bedrock of a society built on free association. As someone looking at society with unorthodox thinking, analysing trends and challenging orthodoxy, this is something that I myself have struggled with recently.

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

Fredrich Nietzsche

And that, I think is a quality that is missing from today’s West. The ability to talk honestly and openly about issues personally affecting you has led to large groups of people dropping out of society altogether. I don’t know how we can solve this problem, but I believe that it would be a good idea to re-examine the structuring of education, perhaps by decentralising it and giving more agency to the schools and teachers.

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