The Dangers of Isolation
Isolation is dangerous.
Webster defines isolation as “to set apart from others; quarantine; insulate.” While brief periods of isolation may not be dangerous, isolation has become a way of life for many. Despite easier, less-expensive, and more accessible interaction with other people, contemporary humans may be the most isolated in history. I will leave others to explain the precise mechanisms and explanations for this reality; here, I want to dwell for a moment on the forms of isolation that pervade our world.
But first, a couple of clarifications. By isolation I do not mean living in solitude, where intentional alone-ness is embraced for a time and a purpose. A priest spending part of their spiritual formation in a monastery is not isolated, at least as I am talking about it here. Further, by isolation I also do not mean simply being alone or by yourself. Plenty of people are isolated but interact with people daily.
The chief problem with isolation-as-a-way-of-life is its violation of our human nature, which was created for community and fellowship with other beings. Isolation draws us away from relationality—from connecting with, understanding, and sharing life with others—into ourselves, our own thoughts and desires, and our selfishness. There are varying degrees of isolation, and each form shares this characteristic: isolation focuses on me and not others.
Forms of Isolation
There are three major forms of isolation in our world: isolated living, isolated action, and isolated thinking.
Isolated living primarily occurs when people withdraw from one another in daily life. This might be the form of isolation that is easiest to identify: the hermit living on the edge of town, the Amish of the rural Midwest, and the mountain top guru are all obvious examples of isolated living. But these extreme examples are not the only forms of isolated living. We isolate ourselves when we withdraw from things that are different than us. We live isolated lives when we fail to live honestly and authentically with those in our lives and give surface level answers. Saying that you’re “fine” when you’re anything but is a common expression of the isolated life.
Isolated action involves living as if there are no others in the world. When actions are isolated, the decisions you make and the deeds you do are centered around you, with little regard for anyone else anywhere. Again, there are some clear examples of isolated action: the company that dumps pollution into creeks and rivers with no regard for the environmental consequences, or the politicians who continually kick addressing the national debt down the road. Self-motivated and self-focused doing: these are the hallmarks of isolated action.
Isolated thinking entails thinking foremost of ourselves, our ideas, and our perception of the world. There are many kinds of isolated thinking. Increasingly prevalent is isolated communicative thinking, where people assume that when they say something, everyone else ought to understand precisely what they mean and any breakdown in communication is the fault of others. Isolated social thinking dictates that the way I live, or the experiences I have had, should be normative for other people, even if their life situations or experiences are different. Especially common among Christians is isolated theological thinking, where my church, my brand of theology, or my reading of the Bible are the only true or truly normative ways to approach and understand God. In all these ways of thinking, isolation occurs when personal perspective overwhelms the possibility of finding value in other ways of thinking or learning from other viewpoints.
I want to reiterate that isolation in balanced doses is not necessarily a bad thing; it is only when these ways of living, acting, and thinking become pervasive that isolation truly becomes dangerous and gains the power to destroy relationships. How do we avoid isolated living, action, and thinking? Some suggestions:
First, prioritize meaningful interactions with other people. Go out for coffee with a friend and ask about how their life is going. Invite a family from your kid’s school over for dinner. Go for a long walk with your spouse and talk about something other than the grind of daily life. Donate your time or money to a worthy cause. Act and speak with forethought and conviction, not simply because it’s easy or the way you usually do things.
Second, put yourself into someone else’s shoes. What this looks like will be shaped by your own community and its needs. It could be something as simple as being cheery and treating your grocery store cashier as if they are a real person. Or maybe it’s something a bit more out of your comfort zone, like stopping your car to talk to the homeless man on the street corner and asking him about what he really needs and wants. This is, of course, an application of the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. Where can you put that into practice?
Finally, expose yourself to other perspectives—and take them seriously. This does not mean “opening your mind so wide that it falls out.” But it does mean learning about what others think, considering the impact of their ideas, and reflecting on their value and truthfulness. It’s not enough, for example, to be able to explain the basic tenets of Islam: we must also be able to talk to a Muslim, to understand who they are and love them there. Only when our thinking moves from our heads to our hands—to meaningful interaction—have we truly begun to overcome our isolation.
What about you: How are you living, acting, or thinking in an isolated manner? What can you do in the next week to address that isolation?
Image courtesy of Juan Antonia Segal.