A woman in her early forties drank her coffee at a small table, fidgeted, twiddled her hair compulsively, and looked noticeably agitated. Every now and then she would press a single button on her phone so that the screen would light up and tell her something, or nothing. She was physically in the cafe, but so intensely internalised in her condition that she could have been anywhere. As I reflected on the subject of 'isolation', I realised that our society is now harbouring so many expressions of this that it is hard to even identify them. We are long passed the familiar example of an elderly person sitting at home in loneliness - although this is in no way deserves less urgent attention. But isolation, in all its forms, is impressing itself on all of us every day. Individuals can now venture out of their home into a public space, and essentially remain veiled and separate from their environment, like puppets in a show, heedless of the set change behind them. They notice little, and are noticed little.
We can rush from thing to thing out of habit and necessity, and rarely engage with present reality at all - we are thinking about what's happened or projecting to what hasn't. Perhaps worst of all is when we desire to interact with others but somehow feel so stifled by convention and our culture of isolation, that it is difficult or even dangerous in our minds to do so. As the roads fill with cars, and the malls with shoppers, and the beaches with bathers, we all become more and more alone, and less and less confident to connect.
It apparently starts at an early age. Young ones can be locked into 'screen time' for hour upon hour in all its guises - 'education', 'entertainment', and as a solution for parents who want to placate their energetic child. If we stop and think for a moment, we are literally encouraging our children to cut off from their environment and to isolate themselves from healthy interaction. Consequently, many young people then find it uncomfortable to simply look around at the environment, make eye contact with others, smile, etc without having a screen in hand or head phones stuck in their ears. It seems that they have become accustomed to a kind of isolation, and it is overwhelming to come out of it.
Then there are the elderly ones amongst us who come from another world. As L. P. Hartley said, 'the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there'. These citizens were used to greeting and being greeted, to helping one another, to joking and playing with children, to simply knowing what was going on in their neighbourhood. Another extremely vulnerable group are new mothers who are often plunged into a very different kind of social isolation as they begin the eternally important work of raising the next generation. Surely it is overwhelming and completely unnatural to be alone at this time.
Isolation creates despair and anxiety and is, I feel, a very real social ill that deserves serious attention. Like with most things, however, there is so much that can be done at an individual level to help alleviate the effects - and of course a few individuals soon have a collective impact. As a parent I have noticed that children help us a lot. My two year old daughter gazes at the world with joy and interest wherever we go; she smiles and waves at passers-by, and they in turn become enlivened by her. Questions are asked, conversations begin, experiences are shared. It is as if her newness taps into everyone's higher desire to connect. This should teach us something, and give us the confidence to be more proactive and interested in our interactions with others - whether we have a child or not.
But to break this condition of isolation we need a little more than periodic smiles to a neighbour and 'hello's to the postman - we need to know and care about each other, as well as the place we live in. Imagine a community in which individuals' talents and strengths are used and harmonised, and not left alone to stagnate in silence; where genuine love binds the people in a neighbourhood together. Again, this is all possible and I see heartening glimpses of such cooperation in the efforts of the Baha'i community all over the world. Perhaps, first, we just need to recognise that the condition we currently live in, in the West at least, is not a healthy one. We can choose to live in new ways and make a positive change. It's simply the difference between adjusting to the norm, or working to transform it.
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