The Other Kind of Social Distance: Living Alone, Together.
A beginning note:
Inevitably my thoughts about the world are influenced by my own personal experiences and unique perspective. This piece was born out of my feelings of nostalgia for childhood, but also my current sense of political homelessness and anxiety. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the line between where my problems end and the world’s problems begin and I wanted to explore that thought. This is a free flowing piece that dances on the line between structure and agency.
Sometimes I feel like there’s a culture of distance and disconnection that underpins our society and affects how we interact with ourselves and each other. Our social world seems to increasingly encourage alienation and social distance. Here, social distance refers to the sense of difference or distance that we feel between ourselves and others who belong to different social groups.
I often feel like the seams of democracy are loosening around us and bridging gaps of understanding, familiarity, and empathy between individuals is essential. Our voices and social bonds are important personally and politically because they stabilize us in both planes — yet I’m finding it increasingly difficult to connect with people on a political and sometimes personal level.
I’m aware that we each play a significant role in our own experiences but it’s also true that our experiences are entangled with the people and culture around us. So I do my best here to acknowledge and balance the concepts of structure vs. agency while thinking through the social and political mechanisms that paradoxically create both chaos and order in our lives.
Living Alone, Together.
I moved about 2 years and I live in a nice neighbourhood, with nice people but I’m not as close to my neighbours now as I remember being as a child. Whenever I see them and we offer up our hellos, as I walk away, I always stop to consider how funny it is to be living so close to someone while knowing so little about who they are.
I remember one of my professors describing it as, “living alone together.” How you know your neighbours, but don’t really know your neighbours. We’re alone but are still loosely held together by geographic proximity and shallow niceties. We’re theoretically part of the same community, but the landscape feels more familiar than the faces; the sound of the birds is more recognizable than the sound of a neighbour’s voice. Cities and suburbs aren’t as intimate as I imagine older communities must have been.
With time, human interaction seems to be falling out of style. And though Canada is a nation that does well materially — I feel a collective spiritual and emotional bankruptcy gripping the culture. It has us by the throat, but it’s been this way for so long that it almost feels normal.
Sometimes I feel like we’ve been trained to spend more time theorizing about the world than actually living in it and that worries me because it’s harder to hold empathy for people who seem more like concepts than flesh and blood.
Many people my age have a habit of avoiding human contact when possible. We’ve replaced cashiers with robots and we’re more comfortable swiping right on a screen than approaching an attractive stranger in the wild. Even in conversation, instead of engaging curiously and empathetically with others, many prefer to digest and regurgitate social theory and shallow stereotypes about those deemed their political opponents.
An Ode to Childhood Ignorance
It’s strange how things have changed.
I remember a time when I knew all the neighbourhood kids and their parents.
I remember launching into my first romance without hesitation.
I remember a time when I was more open to learning and my mind held more questions than assumptions — more curiosity than judgement.
I remember a time when my mind welcomed the thought of new people and my body didn’t scream in protest when my mouth went to say a simple, “hello.”
I swear I haven’t always been this way.
I feel like my social anxiety is culturally manufactured and I’m not sure how to return it. Our social lives are a manifestation of both personal choice and cultural influence but it’s difficult to pin down where one ends and the other begins. It’s difficult to know how to be with other people while toeing the line between honest expression and culturally acceptable behaviour.
As an adult I now find myself trying to reclaim pieces of who I was as a child. It’s unfortunate but something happened to me between the ages of 9 and 25 that I think happens to a lot of us . Something inside us dies or is pushed so far down that we forget it’s there.
We learn, sometimes in extremely difficult ways, that not everyone or everything is safe. We fall, we bleed, we break, lose people, feel used, misunderstood, humiliated — scarred. We’re also socialized to be untrusting by those who have gone through similar experiences. Life teaches us that curiosity can lead to beauty, but it can also lead to danger. It’s understandable that we become less trusting in our quest to avoid pain; but it’s a shame what it does to us individually and collectively. The world outside begins to feel unsafe but so does the world within. A part of us yearns to find deeper meaning and connection but the culture discourages us from even trying.
Some of this process is natural but a large part is also culturally created. For better and for worse, before we’re given proper room to question who and what we are, we’re shaped into what society wants us to be.
Socialization and Self-Censorship
The nature of culture is exclusive and necessitates that we cut off parts of ourselves to fit in. Almost as a matter of survival, our social world begins to prune away at us, and we’re left to sort through which parts of ourselves are allowed and which parts must be hidden away. As a result, our social world feels restrained and steeped in a well-meaning dishonesty that slowly breaks our spirits over time.
Sometimes I fantasize about being free to exist unrestrained, but I know that’s not possible in a society that prioritizes civility and order. I imagine our world would quickly decay into something resembling a more barbaric version of Twitter. The idea of true freedom is romantic but there’s an ugliness that can accompany the total freedom to be yourself without fear of consequence. Sometimes when people are cracked open and revealed for all that they are it’s hard to stomach.
I think perhaps that’s why as much as sometimes we crave connection, we still fear it to some degree.
We know that as much as people are good, people are also evil. As much as people hold the capacity for empathy, they also hold the capacity for harm. This is perhaps why even those who champion freedom do their best to restrain others who choose to exist in ways that make them uncomfortable.
And so for better and for worse, we’re encouraged to restrain the full range of our expression in favour of a tidier caricature of ourselves that we perform in the world.
Obviously, life doesn’t always feel that cold. I have happy moments with friends, vulnerable moments with family, I’ve developed a warm familiarity with many local workers, have had meaningful exchanges with strangers, and have had managed to have insightful discussions with people who see the world in ways I don’t full understand.
There are still moments of profound connection to be found in life but they’re rare and unpredictable — so maybe it’s natural to be a bit guarded and awkward as we try to open up because you don’t really know where it’s going to go. During a first impression, it’s impossible to know whether your relationship with this stranger will end in friendship or in heartbreak. The unknown is unnerving and it’s natural to feel a little unsure about how to approach a stranger or a strange idea.
But it’s still a strange thing to be unsure how to commune in a community.
It’s a strange thing to live in a democracy while knowing it’s growing increasingly difficult to have a productive exchange about difficult ideas.
It’s a strange thing to share a bed with someone who you’re unsure how to share your feelings with.
Social Distance and Social Distance
In the recent months of social distance as we’ve been forced to confront difficult issues I’ve given a lot of thought to social cohesion and how we might create more of it to exist more peacefully together. Looking out at the sociopolitical landscape, the ties between us seem so weak and fractured. But of course, that could just be the algorithm manipulating me into a frenzied state. I know there’s more good in the world than the news and various social media algorithms would have us believe — but I’m still worried about what I see. I don’t believe the world will ever be a utopic promise land but I have hopes that we can do better than whatever it is we’re doing right now.
It’s difficult to know how to find our way out of the mess we’ve created because the construct of society is so fragile that any small change can throw us into chaos. We have to change something, it’s just difficult to know what that is. We have to draw a line somewhere, it’s just difficult to know where and when and who should draw it.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we keep trying to point to one person or group as the ones responsible for social reform as if this society doesn’t belong to all of us. Perhaps part of the problem is that we expect society to change before we do, even though we are society.
As much as other people’s actions affect us, I think it’s important to take some responsibility for all the ways in which we’re complicit in our own unhappiness (and collective demise).
I’ve begun to search for connection and community where I can find it instead of just complaining that it doesn’t exist. I’ve begun to open myself up to new ideas instead of hiding in my ideological echo chamber and judging those on the outside. I’ve also curbed some self-censorship in favour of being more open and free in the expression of new ideas even though they may not align with the public narrative.
My actions won’t change the world, but they’ll change mine — and that’s a start.
Perhaps filling the gap of social distance is just an uncomfortable process of unlearning, unbecoming, and returning to a more childlike innocence and curiosity. Again, an idea that sounds romantic but is of course unrealistic. We can’t be and shouldn’t be who were as kids. There’s value in the lessons we learn with age, even if they cause us pain and discomfort.
There’s value in fear, boundaries, hesitation, norms, theory and the like. I’ve picked up many tools along life’s journey and am learning which ones are helping me progress and which are clouding my judgement. I have the suspicion that fear is at the root of our social distance but I don’t want it to stop me from connecting in the ways that make life feel worthwhile.
One of my favourite quotes is by Deborah Adele in The Ethical Teachings of Yoga, and it says, “we need to know the difference between the fears that keep us alive and the fears that keep us from living.” (p.23)
And I want to live — but together.