March 25, 2015 marked the first time I’ve seen a major online publication, Psychology Today, question something that has become, through the power of repetition, a widely held truth.
“Loneliness will kill you.” How many times have we heard some variation of that? How many times do we keep hearing from the media that we are social animals and just aren’t at our best without relationships?
Then after that, how many times do we see any discussion of how we are to achieve the salubrious state of social support? Especially in a way that respects our right to be distinct human beings… and does not try to prescribe a best personality or a best way of living?
That does not assume we have 100% control of the uncontrollable– other people’s feelings, boundaries, and perceptions– and therefore, says it’s 100% our fault if others’ choices do not favor us?
That does not promote a “whatever it takes” attitude to combating loneliness, thereby ensuring we try to coerce others into reciprocating our social overtures?
That actually challenges our instinct to hunker down with people who remind us of ourselves, instead of saying “embrace it”?
Let’s just say, I have more fingers on my hand.
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Believe it or not, a big part of what holds us back is our relationships.
I’ll restate that: what holds us back are the unspoken rules we follow about our relationships. The actions we take as we go about this socializing thing. The everyday behaviors we engage in to be sociable, be friendly, be likeable.
Too often, in the choices, behaviors, and decisions we make in our everyday lives to attract a social support system (and therefore protect our health, according to the media), we choose conformity with the dominant culture.
We choose to uphold white privilege, for instance, because we just feel safer and more comfortable with white people.
We choose to let sexism slide, because the consequences to our career, reputation and lives are just too steep– ask any man who wants to stay home with his kids. Hell, ask any victim of GamerGate.
Likeability itself seems to require not rocking the boat, because that’s the picture we hold in ourselves of a likeable person– someone who goes with the flow with a minimum of complaint. Someone who’s OK with things staying just the way they are.
Why does the exemplar of the “emotionally intelligent” ideal employee in business come off as so… unconcerned with the consequences of unchecked greed? So single-minded in the pursuit of calm– over any other emotional state? Like solidarity, compassion, altruism and egalitarian outlook?
Why did it take 20 years after the publication of Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book, to see any kind of substantive criticism of it? To see any kind of consideration that EQ might have unintended consequences?
Or to see that positive emotions could, in fact, be used for selfish and even negative ends:
In this single line, “Compassion and altruism are the key to low inflammation and even a longer life,” the presupposition is that compassion and altruism are a means. The end is health and longevity.
…We ought to become more compassionate and altruistic not for the personal good it does for our health, but for the benefits it has for others. The fact that it also may have some benefits for me personally is a nice side-effect, but not the reason for doing it.
If we presuppose that the reason for doing good is to personally benefit… [we] contribute to a degraded society of selfishness and moral decay.
Love from others, too often, has a hidden price of admission– first, you must make me look good to others and feel good about myself. Then, and only then, will I invite you into my community. The fitting in, the benefit to ourselves, becomes more important than the love and compassion.
Closer to home for anyone invested in social justice: how many times have we all tried to practice activism in our everyday lives, but our friends and loved ones just didn’t want any part of it? They didn’t have time, they didn’t know what to do, or they found it too negative?
And what did we choose to do? We chose the respectful and likeable thing, of course. We backed off. We saved our activism for someone who cared. We toned it down. Because if we kept it up, our loved ones may not have found us so lovable any more. They might even decide to leave us… and sort themselves into a group of more like-minded people. Because more warm and fuzzy feelings.
Oh, and by throwing health concerns into the mix? That all but makes being in a relationship compulsory, in the practice of everyday life. Because of both not enough of us having health care (thank you, Republican governors), and because of the American ethos of “always help yourself before asking for help from others”, the practical effect of saying “loneliness is bad for your health” is to make loneliness taboo.
We trust the media less and less overall. But we still trust them when it comes to messages about our health. And for many years now, we have been getting such a steady diet of uncritical promotion of health through relationship, that we largely accept it without question.
We would rather fit in than stand out, because it has been drilled into our heads that rapport and friendship require that first we make ourselves similar to our would-be friends. That we must have something in common with someone, in order to care about them.
And so we put up with things from our social circles that we swore we never would put up with, when we were growing up. Because we see the negatives as worth being in relationships. We see gender inequality as a small sacrifice for being married and having children. We see emotional abuse and overlong hours as a trade-off for having a good job. We see the pains of the dating game and of possibly having to live beyond our means to fit in, as an inevitable consequence of living a rich single life.
We see ourselves as being realistic about our social world, and doing the best we can.
But what if we can do even better?
What if we do NOT have to choose between having friends, and being our best selves?
What if our social circles were not warm, fuzzy straitjackets… but real bonds of solidarity? Real give-and-take that does not impose a hidden cost on us (except for Don’t Be An Asshole)? Real forces for personal and social transformation?
Loneliness may or may not kill you. But social circles that are contingent on you not rocking the boat, will smother your soul in a fluffy, comfortable blanket.
Note: Cross-posted to Daily Kos.