August 28, 2006    Psychology

What Is the Opposite of Isolation?

An interesting website called “The Belonging Initiatives” was brought to my attention. It is a Canadian group which is “exploring ways by which we can end isolation and loneliness for persons with disabilities.” The concept of isolation and loneliness has always fascinated me mainly because I moved a lot in my childhood. The toughest experience I had of loneliness was when I moved to New York from Japan on my own to go to college. At the time, I spoke very little English, and there were no other Japanese students in my college. I do recall the pain was almost physical.

On the website, there is a link to an article on “the study conducted by Duke University about how Americans are becoming more isolated. I was quite surprised by the results. I would have guessed the opposite. In retrospect, it makes sense. Various technologies have allowed us to be more self-sufficient. Not so long ago, raising children required the help of one’s extended family. It wasn’t possible for a mother alone to take care of children and all the household chores. And, not so long ago before that, it wasn’t possible to do so without the help of the whole community to which one belonged. The things we take for granted, such as running water, electricity, washing machines, telephones, cars and computers, have dramatically decreased the amount of time and effort required to take care of our basic needs. So, over the history of human beings, we have continually reduced the size of the minimum unit of survival. Now, it’s down to a nuclear family. One of the side effects of this reduction, I believe, is loneliness.

This reminds me of the first year of my college in the school dorm. The rooms were so tiny that most of the students came out to the hallway to hang out. As you could imagine in such a situation, every night there was a big party. The dorm residents were able to make many friends overnight. (Sadly I couldn’t because of the language and cultural barriers.) Ironically, the students who had their own apartments were envious of the situation at the dorm. One time, I was speaking with a New York University student about their dorm. Their dorm was so fancy, in comparison to ours, that they hardly knew their next-door neighbors. In this manner, convenience leads to self-sufficiency, which in turn leads to isolation. As strange and ironic as it may seem, I would say that the real cause of loneliness is convenience that allows us to be self-sufficient.

In the summer of 2003, we had a total blackout here in Manhattan. The tremendous inconvenience it caused brought our neighbors together. Everyone came out onto the streets and helped one another endure the heat. We all had a common topic of conversation regardless of our backgrounds. One of my neighbors who has been living here for several decades said that in the 70s, every day was like that, and he said he misses those days very much.

In reading other posts on “The Belonging Initiatives”, I could not help but notice the impossibility of “belonging” as the author defines it. In order for us to feel a sense of belonging, there must be others who do not belong. In other words, exclusion must be always already implied in the concept of belonging. A community where everyone belongs, is not a community at all. In fact, we could say that the earth is a community where everyone belongs, but we don’t feel that sense of belonging because there is no one excluded. If we can find other planets with intelligent beings, this would change. The existence of these space aliens would give us the sense of belonging to a community called the earth.

In this sense, to form a community is the same as to exclude others. And, this is not just a matter of semantics; it is quite real. The reality of it is easy to see in confined situations like in high schools. In any given high school, the number of students is finite and known. As soon as you form a community or a group of some sort within it, there will be others who feel excluded. Some high school students would go as far as to form a group for the purpose of inflicting a sense of exclusion on others. The stronger the sense of exclusion is for others, the stronger the sense of belonging is for its members. If you were to form a community based on the beliefs of inclusiveness and diversity, you would end up including the entire high school. The point of this community would then vanish, and no one would feel any sense of belonging. (They would simply feel that they belong to this high school, and this sense is only made possible by the existence of other high schools.) This means that, to create a sense of belonging within this high school, you must create a sense of exclusion. The former is not possible without the latter.

The common assumption is that the opposite of isolation/loneliness is the sense of belonging, but it is not. I could have many close friends who do not belong to any communities. Suppose I have 10 very close friends, on whom I can rely for any help, and to whom I can share my deepest concerns, but they do not know one another. In this case, there is no sense of belonging on my part. Yet, I would not feel isolated or lonely. Unfortunately there is no word for this state that I can think of. I do not need any group or community in order to avoid feeling isolated. Just because I do not feel a sense of belonging, does not mean that I am a recluse or that I am isolated or lonely. I may have more soul mates than most people can hope to ever have, and still have no sense of belonging.

We face a peculiar paradox whenever we form a group or a community. Whether we can successfully sustain the group or not, hinges on how we define the commonality of the group. For some reason, we cannot sustain a group without defining the binding factor. Just imagine a group that declares that its members have nothing in common; no common objectives, beliefs, interests, states, or circumstances. The whole point of the concept of grouping vanishes, and people are unable to sustain the state of group-ness. The more specific and well-defined the binding factor is, the greater their bond is. The opposite is also true: the looser and the more ambiguous the binding factor is, the weaker the bond is.

In this sense, promoting diversity in a group has a negative effect. You can form a community of musicians, and within it, you can promote racial diversity, but this is because race is irrelevant to music. As soon as you extend the diversity to artists, politicians, lawyers, and dentists, the bond of its members will get weaker, and eventually the whole point of this group would vanish. In this manner, true diversity can never be achieved in a group.

I do not see anything wrong with forming communities, but I do believe that a sense of belonging does not necessarily solve the problem of isolation and loneliness. (In some cases, fostering of a sense of belonging can create the problem, because it must necessarily exclude some people.) If I truly pursued diversity in my friendship, my friends will be so different from one another that it would be impossible for them to form any sort of groups or communities. But, this is a perfectly good way to not feel isolated. I believe the solution to the problem of isolation lies in our individual relationships. You can form a community to expedite the fostering of these individual relationships, but the emphasis should ultimately be on the individual relationships, not on the sense of belonging.