Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.
Those words above are attributed to Mother Teresa and I have no reason to doubt that.
I selected them because they seemed to capture the mood that flowed out at me from a recent essay by George Monbiot.
Many will know George for he is a British writer very well-known for his environmental and political activism. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian, and is the author of a number of books.
Way back in the early days of this blog I was moved to republish some of GM’s essays and sought his permission to do just that. He responded promptly giving me blanket permission to republish any of his essays.
Now it’s a long time since I have availed myself of that permission for the simple reason that so very often George writes about matters that are tough to read and I choose not to share with you because there’s no shortage of tough commentaries about today’s world. That’s no criticism, actual or implied, into George Monbiot’s integrity as a reporter and writer.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd October 2016
Two years ago, I wrote a column for the Guardian in which I argued that what distinguishes our age from those preceding it is an epidemic of loneliness. Throughout human history, we have been hyper-social animals, dependent on each other for both physical and psychic survival. Thomas Hobbes’s claim – that our natural state is a war of “every man against every man” – is a myth proposed by someone whose understanding of human evolution was confined to the book of Genesis. But the myth is now being realised through the religion of our time: a celebration of extreme individualism and universal competition. The resulting loneliness, I argued, is a deadly condition, which kills as many people as smoking or obesity.
To my astonishment, the article exploded, and the ripples can still be felt today. A documentary it inspired, called the Age of Loneliness, aired recently on BBC1. Several publishers asked me to write books on the topic, but I could think of nothing more depressing than spending three years sitting on my backside, documenting social isolation. There was plenty I wanted to say on the topic. But how?
A few weeks later, I dashed out to buy some screws from a hardware shop. Ahead of me in the queue was an elderly woman. She lent on the counter, dithering about what she wanted and trying to engage the sales assistants in a riveting conversation about her state of health. Stuck behind her, I quietly fumed: it seemed as if she would never leave.
But as I cycled home, and my frustration ebbed away, I saw what should have been obvious: here was a person who seemed desperately lonely. “Where’s your empathy?”, I asked myself. “Isn’t that what you were writing about?”. What if that conversation was the only one she would have all day? I felt guilty about my feelings in the shop.
When I returned to my desk, I began dashing out a rough poem about a woman living with little to keep her company but memories, who goes to the shops in the hope that she might talk to someone, but discovers that the tills have been replaced with automatic checkouts. As I wrote, it seemed to me that it was trying to become something else: a ballad. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with the topic: I wanted to write an album.
There were just a couple of minor hitches. I can’t read music, I don’t play an instrument and my singing is banned under international law. But I knew who to ask.
I first heard Ewan McLennan while listening to Late Junction on Radio 3, in 2011. I was transfixed by his voice, his playing and what seemed to be an almost supernatural ability to find the heart of a song. He was just 25. I bought his first album, Rags and Robes, and listened to it over and again. Three years later, I heard him interviewed by Mary Ann Kennedy, whose programmes I’ve followed since she began broadcasting on Radio Scotland. He spoke with the same ease of expression I had heard in his music. He was relaxed and funny, politically engaged and plainly fascinated by the roots and text of songs and poems. He came across as a cracking bloke.
I did something I have seldom done: I sent him a fan letter. I invited him to a talk I was giving in his home city, Bristol. He came, and over dinner afterwards we clicked. So, a few months later, with some trepidation, it was to him that I sent my idea of collaborating on a themed album.
To my delight, he agreed. I would start by thinking up a story and writing a rough sketch, which might incorporate some potential hooks, rhymes and choruses. I would send it to him on the understanding that he could do whatever he liked with it. I did not try to write to his style, as I knew he would take from each sketch what he wanted and make the song his own.
I wasn’t wrong. A couple of weeks after I emailed the first sketch to him, I found an audio file in my inbox, and opened it with the excitement of a child at Christmas. It was wonderful – he had turned my base metal into gold. The songs he sent back to me were riveting and heart-wrenching, capturing sensations I have long struggled to express.
The album is a mixture of dark shades and light: sad ballads and stirring anthems. We want to use it as a means of not only talking about loneliness, but, in a small way, addressing it. With advice from charities working on the issue, we are designing our gigs to try to bring people together. I will talk about the themes and Ewan will perform the songs. We will encourage people in the audience to talk to each other; then it will end up with a party in the nearest willing pub. Music naturally makes connections; we want to take it a step further.
In one respect, the album is already succeeding, as the collaboration has relieved the usual solitude in which we both work, making our lives less lonely. I hope it has the same effect on other people.
Breaking the Spell of Loneliness, by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot, is released on October 14 by Fellside Records.
Here’s a short video about the project, featuring some of the music:
This remarkable collaboration between author George Monbiot and musician Ewan McLennan seeks to address the curse of our age: a crowded planet stricken by loneliness. Using music and the written word, it seeks to make connections in a splintered world.
Now, dear reader, you would be disappointed if I didn’t close today’s post without reference to the value of a dog or two in one’s life, and I have no intention of delivering such disappointment!
From the dozens of pictures that have been presented here over the years I chose this one.
Because I have this notion that one can never be truly alone if there is a dog in one’s life.
Much as I respect Mr. Monbiot’s views, I hope he is wrong in this respect.
I have long admired the writings of George Monbiot and, as often as not, have republished his essays in this place.
But an essay by George that was published in the UK Guardian newspaper yesterday portrays a frightening picture of modern-day Britain. It was called Falling Apart and is republished, with George’s permission, today.
I want to offer a personal response to the essay, that immediately follows George’s piece.
October 14, 2014
Competition and individualism are forcing us into a devastating Age of Loneliness
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 15th October 2014
What do we call this time? It’s not the information age: the collapse of popular education movements left a void now filled by marketing and conspiracy theories(1). Like the stone age, iron age and space age, the digital age says plenty about our artefacts but little about society. The anthropocene, in which humans exert a major impact on the biosphere, fails to distinguish this century from the previous twenty. What clear social change marks out our time from those that precede it? To me it’s obvious. This is the Age of Loneliness.
When Thomas Hobbes claimed that in the state of nature, before authority arose to keep us in check, we were engaged in a war “of every man against every man”(2), he could not have been more wrong. We were social creatures from the start, mammalian bees, who depended entirely on each other. The hominims of East Africa could not have survived one night alone. We are shaped, to a greater extent than almost any other species, by contact with others. The age we are entering, in which we exist apart, is unlike any that has gone before.
Three months ago we read that loneliness has become an epidemic among young adults(3). Now we learn that it is just as great an affliction of older people. A study by Independent Age shows that severe loneliness in England blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1m women over 50(4), and is rising with astonishing speed.
Ebola is unlikely ever to kill as many people as this disease strikes down. Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day(5); loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity(6). Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut(7,8). We cannot cope alone.
Yes, factories have closed, people travel by car instead of buses, use YouTube rather than the cinema. But these shifts alone fail to explain the speed of our social collapse. These structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is now no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.
British children no longer aspire to be train drivers or nurses, more than a fifth now say they “just want to be rich”: wealth and fame are the sole ambitions of 40% of those surveyed(9). A government study in June revealed that Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe(10). We are less likely than other Europeans to have close friends or to know our neighbours. Who can be surprised, when everywhere we are urged to fight like stray dogs over a dustbin?
We have changed our language to reflect this shift. Our most cutting insult is loser. We no longer talk about people. Now we call them individuals. So pervasive has this alienating, atomising term become that even the charities fighting loneliness use it to describe the bipedal entities formerly known as human beings(11). We can scarcely complete a sentence without getting personal. Personally speaking (to distinguish myself from a ventriloquist’s dummy), I prefer personal friends to the impersonal variety and personal belongings to the kind that don’t belong to me. Though that’s just my personal preference, otherwise known as my preference.
One of the tragic outcomes of loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation: two-fifths of older people now report that the one-eyed god is their principal company(12). This self-medication enhances the disease. Research by economists at the University of Milan suggests that television helps to drive competitive aspiration(13). It strongly reinforces the income-happiness paradox: the fact that, as national incomes rise, happiness does not rise with them.
Aspiration, which increases with income, ensures that the point of arrival, of sustained satisfaction, retreats before us. The researchers found that those who watch a lot of television derive less satisfaction from a given level of income than those who watch only a little. Television speeds up the hedonic treadmill, forcing us to strive even harder to sustain the same level of satisfaction. You have only to think of the wall-to-wall auctions on daytime TV, Dragon’s Den, the Apprentice and the myriad forms of career-making competition the medium celebrates, the generalised obsession with fame and wealth, the pervasive sense, in watching it, that life is somewhere other than where you are, to see why this might be.
So what’s the point? What do we gain from this war of all against all? Competition drives growth, but growth no longer makes us wealthier. Figures published this week show that while the income of company directors has risen by more than a fifth, wages for the workforce as a whole have fallen in real terms over the past year (14). The bosses now earn – sorry, I mean take – 120 times more than the average full-time worker. (In 2000, it was 47 times). And even if competition did make us richer, it would make us no happier, as the satisfaction derived from a rise in income would be undermined by the aspirational impacts of competition.
The top 1% now own 48% of global wealth(15), but even they aren’t happy. A survey by Boston College of people with an average net worth of $78m found that they too are assailed by anxiety, dissatisfaction and loneliness(16). Many of them reported feeling financially insecure: to reach safe ground, they believed, they would need, on average, about 25% more money. (And if they got it? They’d doubtless need another 25%). One respondent said he wouldn’t get there until he had $1 billion in the bank.
For this we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.
Yes, there are palliatives, clever and delightful schemes like Men in Sheds and Walking Football developed by charities for isolated older people(17). But if we are to break this cycle and come together once more, we must confront the world-eating, flesh-eating system into which we have been forced.
Hobbes’s pre-social condition was a myth. But we are now entering a post-social condition our ancestors would have believed impossible. Our lives are becoming nasty, brutish and long.
As closing sentences go, that’s about as tough as it gets.
Nevertheless, I’m going to offer a perspective, something that George doesn’t mention. That is the importance of community.
Back in 2008 BBC Timewatch screened a programme about the revelations that came from the latest archaeological dig at Stonehenge, near Amesbury in Wiltshire in England. I wrote about the programme over four years ago: Stonehenge – a place of healing.
Stonehenge is one of Britain’s most famous historical sites, deservedly so because Stonehenge was one of the most important places in ancient Europe.
But evidence from a dig that was authorised in 2008 has shown that not only is Stonehenge a much older site of human habitation but that it’s purpose is altogether different to what has been assumed. It was, indeed, a healing place, possibly the most important in Europe.
If you would like to watch that Timewatch episode, and it is highly recommended, then someone has neatly uploaded it to YouTube.
The programme clearly offers evidence from the carbon-dating of seeds buried under the famous blue stones that dates this settlement to some 9,000 years BP. The detailed examination of ancient humans buried nearby indicates they came to Stonehenge with a range of diseases, many terminal in nature.
So back to George Monbiot’s essay and the element that screams out at me.
We have lost sight of the huge healing benefits that come from old-fashioned, shoulder-to-shoulder communities.
Not to mention the healing properties of a loving dog or two in one’s life!