No person is an island. We need to shift our language of ‘individual problems’ to a discourse of social causation and situatedness. Now more than ever, we need to connect each other’s problems to find their root causes and foster opportunities for solidarity.
by Kurt Borg
Image: RyanMcGuire / Pixabay
When done well (i.e. neither like this nor like this), socially engaged academic work is truly refreshing. Knowledge is not something that’s restricted to the lecture rooms: it informs our relation to ourselves, each other, the society and world we live in. This article is motivated by an initiative that draws on knowledge developed within a university in order to engage with a key contemporary concern: solitude.
Last week, a freely available 26-minute documentary appeared online, titled “Il-ġerħa tas-solitudni: il-mixja lejn soluzzjoni” (“The wound of solitude: the walk towards a solution”). It is produced by the University of Malta’s Faculty for Social Wellbeing in collaboration with Caritas Malta.
The documentary opens with the 2016 story of Ronnie Stafrace, a 71 year old who lived on his own, whose neighbours hadn’t seen him around for some days. When the police made their way into Ronnie’s house, they found a scene that echoed Oliver Friggieri’s short story “Ir-Raġel tal-Klieb”: his hungry dog had been biting into his owner’s decomposing corpse.
The documentary narrator and journalist, Keith Demicoli, wondered: “was this a one-off event or a reality of our time?” In my view, the documentary’s overall message swayed, rightly, toward the latter answer. The documentary emphasises that no human is an island. People desire connection: be it to other people, to an experience of shared values, or to a community. Relations define humans, which is why it is so damaging when this relational space in which humans grow and develop is compromised.
Natalie Kenely, Head of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Malta, highlighted a distinction between solitude and loneliness. Not every form of “being alone” is necessarily wrong: sometimes it is actually important to retreat from the crowds and spend time alone to reflect on whatever.
Being lonely is about feeling disconnected, not in tune, isolated, detached, or unreachable.
Loneliness—or the dark side of solitude—is a fundamentally different experience. It’s not just a matter of being alone. One may be alone and not feel lonely, and one may also be in company yet still be lonely, as Marilyn Clark, Professor of Psychology, remarks. Being lonely is about feeling disconnected, not in tune, isolated, detached, or unreachable*.
Besides scholarly knowledge, the documentary (importantly) also presents personal narratives recounted by people who have been through serious experiences of loneliness and solitude. These narratives were wide-ranging: from Diandra who presented her struggles with being bullied and body-shamed, to Charmaine who recounts how a life event that befell her made her feel severely depressed and disconnected. Mario Galea, Member of Parliament has spoken very openly about his struggles with depression, referred to the solitude that comes with depressive episodes. Sandro (pseudonym) spoke about his experiences of solitude growing up in a “dysfunctional family” rife with communication issues and poignantly recalled how, as a child, he doesn’t remember being hugged by any of his parents.
Sandro described how, apart from the personal toll of experiences of solitude, he also felt huge anger toward society. This, to me, is the crux of the issue, which the documentary highlights.
Narrator Keith Demicoli remarks how we live in a world where many of us dedicate a lot (too much) of their time and energy to their careers and work at the expense of spending more time cultivating enriching relationships. It is incredible, he says, how the phenomenon of solitude is on the rise despite living in a society full of innovative means of connectivity. But is this really surprising? Connectivity doesn’t imply or guarantee connection and, moreover, the popular social media are regulating (and, in various ways, hindering) the ways in which people communicate and interact with each other.
Andreana Dibben, Lecturer in Social Policy and Social Work, indicated that the loss of public spaces is exacerbating issues of solitude. Rampant over-development destroys important social spaces which people occupied in the community—the old person in the pjazza, the child playing outdoors, parents interacting in the square while the children play. This is having huge negative impact on people and it’s contributing to people losing their space, their sense of community and their sense of self-in-the-community. Instead of spaces where people can hang out socially, we’re surrounded by ugly cranes, noise, dust, traffic, road rage, lack of parking spaces, and terrible renting rates. Anger → Frustration → Helplessness → Disconnection → Solitude. A vicious chain.
Capitalism is destroying relational bonds, depriving us all of a sense of being and wellbeing.
Neoliberal metrics of standard of living do not capture considerations for quality of life. Mark Caruana, Economist, remarked how a good economy does not necessarily translate into happier citizens. Just have a look at this article if you need another reason why our economic system is destroying people. Poor estate agent! He couldn’t understand why it’s ludicrous to suggest that it’s really OK to rent out a room to shift workers for 12 hours, with tenants switching after 12 hours to make way for another shift worker. “What if one of the tenants is sick? Is he meant to kick him out on the street because it’s not his bedroom shift? Or what if they take a day off? Do they have to spend it on the street?” the conscientious owner asked.
Various solutions have been presented in the documentary. First of all, the sterling work of existing initiatives needs to be acknowledged. Social workers, support groups, Church initiatives, “good neighbours” schemes, NGOs, random contributors and volunteers. The list goes on—the people involved in these initiatives are true heroes in our neoliberal-driven, competitive, individualistic society.
But, ultimately, what needs to be recognised is that this issue cannot be treated in an isolated way.
If you do not feel OK, it’s probably the case that it’s not you who’s the fundamental problem. It is the impossible demands of neoliberalism that is the problem.
This is not a matter that concerns just individuals. It concerns also broader structures. It pertains to our contemporary ways of being and living. It implies that we must politicise areas of life that we pretend to be neutral. Wellbeing is not a neutral term. How you feel is not just about you. Which implies that if you do not feel OK, it’s probably the case that it’s not you who’s the fundamental problem. It’s capitalism that is the problem; it is the impossible demands of neoliberalism that is the problem.
Academic work has a lot to contribute here, particularly the psychological sciences. It’s never enough to describe mental health issues as “individual pathologies”. Mental health isn’t about being resilient. Resilience is important in life, but it also masks various conservative motivations. If being resilient means learning how to tolerate the intolerable, how to accept the unacceptable, how to resign yourself happily to a shitty status quo, then we don’t need resilience. We need trouble. We don’t want people to adjust to a problematic situation. “Be realistic; grow up; adapt; adjust”, the adults in the room say.
It’s truly invigorating and empowering when we are able to connect our problems, our troubles, our personal concerns and our sadness with other people’s concerns.
It’s truly invigorating and empowering when we are able to connect our problems, our troubles, our personal concerns and our sadness with other people’s concerns. It’s liberating to know that what you’re suffering is not necessarily your fault because there is a larger structural dimension that is responsible for how you’re feeling.
I owe this way of thinking to the late and the brilliant Mark Fisher whose work enabled me to see why mental health is a political issue. Here’s an excerpt from his book Capitalist Realism that describes this matter:
The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its depoliticization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRls). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.
We’d be seriously mis-explaining mental health issues if we depoliticise them. Without denying the biochemistry involved in some issues of mental health, we must politicise psychology in order to show how matters of feeling are intimately tied to political matters. How we feel greatly depends on what kind of society we are living in, and it is an imperative task of today to learn how to channel personal dissatisfaction through politically progressive ways aimed toward social justice.
Andrew Azzopardi, Dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, wraps up the documentary by emphasising that we must preserve the various communities we form part of.
We must feel part of a community and we must welcome people into our community. We must feel responsible not just for ourselves but also for each other. We need to look out for people in our community and for those who might be left out, and be kind and helpful. Even in workplaces, we need to take care of ourselves and others, especially those whom we see struggling or sending social cues that they don’t feel well. We’re relational beings, and our individual wellbeing depends also on others’ wellbeing. We’re connected and interdependent creatures.
It is not true that “there is no such thing as society”; when any one person faces solitude and loneliness, it is a common problem.
But responsibility does not stop here. Issues of wellbeing must not be reduced to neither random acts of kindness nor the good will of NGOs and other services. We need to politicise wellbeing. As Azzopardi remarked, we need to have a large-scale strategy and political vision with concrete solutions that guarantees that people do not feel alone and disconnected. It is not true that “there is no such thing as society”; when any one person faces solitude and loneliness, it is a common problem.
This documentary is a thought-provoking and urgent initiative which must stimulate further academic work and research, as well as increase political consciousness around this important matter. Similar work can be done on other important contemporary phenomena pertaining to wellbeing: on stress, for example. Stress is not just a personal and private problem that only people who are not “well-adjusted” feel. Dealing with stress is not just a matter of cultivating resilience. Stress must be politicised and not privatised: why are people feeling stressed? Or, rather, how can people not be stressed in a lifestyle of impossible demands imposed by the dictates of capitalism?
Shifting our point of view toward these concepts results in progressive ways of thinking, making research more attuned to socio-political realities, increasing the critical efficacy of academic work, pushes citizens to reflect more on the kind of society and politicians they want, and creates new avenues for solidarity and sociality.
*This experience is a very wounding one. As Anthony Gatt, Director of Caritas Malta, points out, it comes as no surprise that the worst form of punishment is that of solitary confinement, where one’s relational ties are cut off in order to precisely wound an individual. The harmful effects—on so many different levels—are well-documented (see here and here).