Battling our Epidemic of Loneliness

Eight years ago I wrote my first blog post here. The topic was silos; how cities and towns isolate themselves and competing against each other to the detriment of both – while cooperation would be mutually beneficial. Silos aren’t limited to civic strategy and geographic jingoism though. They’re everywhere.

Silos are easy to create. They allow us to compartmentalize. We can separate things, put them aside and go on. Diving deep, finding connections and trying to wrap our heads around how everything affects each other is messy, ambiguous and difficult. However making the connections between disparate issues very often shines light on them – producing clarity. In a strange way this inter-connectivity simplifies. Even though we say we want to simplify things – we actually go to great lengths to complicate them. As Einstein said: “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” But genius takes work – work we seldom undertake … especially when silos are available.

We deal with civic and social issues at the most digestible level. We treat symptoms rather than underlying causes … creating even more silos. And with this come more policies, laws and power struggles that attempt to deal with them. This is what make bureaucracy so inefficient. It’s filled with unconnected silos all fighting over scarce resources, attempting to address symptoms rather than the root causes that often are connected themselves. Progressive civic problem-solvers call these often neglected root causes, social determinants. They’re buried deep and confronting them seldom produces the quick short-sided fixes politicians and policy-makers feed on. They’re indirect and obliquitous. But ironically these root causes are often obvious to those outside the confines of the echo chambers and ivory towers of public policy governmental malaise. For example: hungry kids will have problems performing well at school – yet so many remain exactly that – as year after year policy makers concentrate instead on the reform de jour, or worse yet threaten school shutdowns for those that under-perform.

The one thing …

What if there was one thing we could focus on that could simultaneously address many of the societal ailments that we encounter and at the same time fixed an important issue its own directly.

Every day there’s a never-ending stream of research and reports detailing the ailments affecting America. But seldom do we hear about any solutions for these ailments; isolated success stories yes – but not overarching policy, governmental or societal.

Obesity: No matter how many alarms are set off – the nation keeps getting fatter. It doesn’t matter, young or old – obesity numbers keep rising, regardless the efforts being attempted (and I say that liberally).

Dementia: Our current elderly, living longer and often alone, have become a generation plagued by dementia and Alzheimers. This is compounded by the fact that most look to doctors and the healthcare system to fix a problem there is no “pill” for.

Addiction: The chronic stresses of today’s non-stop, uncertain lives makes coping with it all a major undertaking … and too much for many. Combine this with the knee-jerk over-prescribing of pharmaceutical quick-fixes and we’ve created a culture who inevitably ends up addicted to whatever they can get their hands on.

Child care issues: No matter what our socioeconomic level is, we all seem to struggle with the same plight – adequate and available child care. Dual-income households as well as single parents find that finding that place to stash their kids during the day while they work – anything but easy.

Finding not just work, but rewarding work: Unemployment is at historical lows, but how many people are happy in their jobs. Many are either underemployed or just unfilled working for “the man.” In addition – college, once the panacea for future employment dilemmas, has turned into a nightmare of student loans for many.

Polarizing political views: Politics is no longer just a lightening rod for uncomfortable Thanksgiving family gatherings. Fueled by the election of Donald Trump and his daily stream of partisan controversy … the United States is anything but that. His divisive anti-social behavior has firmly taken root in our neighborhoods as social engagement has become replaced by isolation and an obsession of cable news.

Too often we look at these aliments in isolation – disconnected from each other. It’s as if obesity has no affect on why we hate our neighbor because he’s a Republican. But actually they can be connected. As are not finding rewarding work and why too many Americans have problems with quality child care. Our goal must be to find what ties all these things together.

Isolation, Illness … And Hate

Recently several articles have surfaced on the detrimental health effects of loneliness, whether it be physical or psychological. Everything always seems worse when we’re sick and there’s no one there to lean on for support. This is especially the case in rural areas where the sparse population adds to the isolation. This condition isn’t exclusive to the geographically remote either. The same can even be said in urban areas when we feel isolated in our communities because our social or political views, or just don’t have anyone emotional close to us anymore.

Can these health detriments due to isolation be a breeding ground for hate? The outsized elderly vote for Donald Trump and his message of division and national isolation makes a case for it. Sadly I’ve never seen hate rise to the levels of today. Why is this? Could it be the source of it is the unprecedented level loneliness and isolation in America? Maybe. Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism, her chronicle on the rise of Nazism makes a parallel argument decades ago.

Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.

Has America turned into a nation of isolated, sick and angry people – waiting impatiently for someone to ride in on a white horse to save them from their lives of misery  – no matter the consequences? Politics is killing us, literally. If all this isn’t enough to make us wake from our cerebral stupor … then what will?

We need to call it like it is. It isn’t a preference. Only in extreme cases is loneliness a choice. It’s an epidemic … like the plague. Very few wish it upon themselves. This isn’t just another city or county budget item like a roundabout or off-ramp to pacify some well-heeled real estate developer. Loneliness is a scourge that is literally killing our country.

Lonely people probably aren’t just a damper on the national morale; they’re likely to be a strain on national productivity and health-care systems, too. The bodies of lonely people are markedly different from the bodies of non-lonely people. Prolonged loneliness can put one at risk for chronic health conditions, exacerbate various health conditions, and ultimately put us at increased risk for premature mortality. (What Loneliness Does to the Body)

Loneliness is a problem that is getting worse too. We are living longer. More and better healthcare is keeping us physically alive longer. Technology, while wonderful for some people, myself included – isolates (emotionally and socially) those who aren’t connected.

We’re geographically separated, and especially in small towns, it’s getting worse. Many parts of the country are losing young talent., such as rural areas that are not keeping up with the technological revolution. This talent are the exact people who would normally be around to keep elderly family members company. And our traditional institutions (churches, fraternal clubs, etc.) no longer hold the same attraction as they did in our parents time. The decline in bowling leagues, the moniker of the famous book on community sociology by Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone – exemplifies the decay of the American social fabric. These are just a few of the reasons, and I’m sure we all can offer up others specific to our own situation too.

Pushing back …

“Our true destiny is a world built from the bottom up by competent citizens living in solid communities, engaged in and by their places.” – David W. Orr

What if the answer was as easy as just getting people back together again; physically engaging with each other. What if we as a society made a concerted effort to re-establish civic and social gathering places. And what if our social policies focused on physical engagement with one another. This engagement would create serendipitous civic resource maximization through synergy – a synergy we often didn’t even know was available to us all the time.

What if a renewed obsession with engagement put us in a place even better than we’ve ever had. By realizing that loneliness is a devastating social disease we can attack it by creating new norms of engagement and awareness. We can forge a new society – one evolved to be better positioned for inclusion and self-transcendence, focusing beyond just our own needs. We would be creating communities where connectiveness and well-being was how we measured themselves, not just jobs and obtuse economic activity often distorted through a one-dimensional lens of irrelevant statistics.

Imagine meeting with a fellow group of customers from the local hardware store to create a small community garden, only to find out the woman working the plot next to yours has a daughter who just moved back in town after college and is looking for a part-time job. And you just happen to be looking for someone to watch you daughter after preschool. A simple engagement at the local hardware store turns out to be a solution for fresh food and childcare.

Imagine coming together with your neighbors to rebuild the local grade school playground, including the one who you would never talk to due to his political ideology. Working side-by-side with him you find out he is an expert in the exact software program you been needing help with for weeks. Now that freelance opportunity you’ve been struggling with can now become a reality.

Imagine grabbing your teenage kids and hauling them down to your local coffee shop for its elderly outreach project. Instead of just brooding around the house every weekend – your lovely offspring are making connections, and changing lives, with those who have literally built the very town they live in. Your son is so taken by a 90 year-old gentleman he has befriended, he decided to stay in town for college and help the coffee shop expand their outreach program … and regularly stay touch in touch with his surrogate grandfather.

Community 3.0, Front Porches … a Call To Action

How do we makes this happen though? How do we transform our communities into ones where opportunities to engage are around every corner? How do we break the habit of the couch, cable news and waiting for “the man on the white horse” to ride in to save us?

In every town and every neighborhood are places where informal leaders go to hang out and do the real business of the town. In Minot, North Dakota where I grew up, we had Charlie’s restaurant and the Elks Lodge. These were the places where the “business of the community” was done (not at the city council meetings). These were the places where ideas were hatched and where the future of Minot was mapped out … often under the influence of a libation or two.

These informal meeting places, most often locally owned businesses, are what I call Front Porches, named after the front yard gathering spots so often seen in Latino communities that are used for neighborhood discussion and connection to the street. These Front Porches are where the Middle Ring flourishes and what the French political philosopher, Alex de Tocqueville, observed in the 1800’s as the source of America’s “inclusive exceptionalism.”

Your neighborhood’s Front Porch can be anywhere or anything. It can be the local pub down the street or the coffee-house where you get your morning sustenance from. It can be Bill’s garage where everyone gathers to watch Sunday football games. It can even be your kitchen table. What happens on the Front Porch is what matters … not what is looks like or where it is.

It’s not enough just have a place to get together though. Front Porches need to promote the activity that bolsters engagement. This activity should be more than just idle talk though. What if it took the form of informal volunteer projects. I call these street-level Front Porch based civic fixes, Solutions. They are designed to help pick up the civic slack and mend its societal safety net while bringing your community members together through action, not just talk. These Solutions can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring or apprentice program.

Community 3.0 is my community engagement platform built around the concept of the Front Porch and the Solutions that are nurtured in them. Using street-level direct civic participation as an augmentation to governmental representation, I believe we can not only create a more responsive and inclusive society – but one that leverages its members to build an environment of physical, mental and social well-being.

Community 3.0 uses the bleedingEDGE 1-to-1 marketing system to mobilize Front Porch patrons and keep them emotionally motivated to help not only help their community, but also themselves through a set of pre-programmed event-driven nudges. These nudges not only focus on recruiting members for volunteer projects, its content advocates for healthy behaviors. Rather than just ‘push burgers’ … your local Front Porch can offer a deal on a Caesar Salad for those who helped with the Saturday morning clean up effort organized by them.

As a part of the Community 3.0 platform we’ve put together a roster of several examples of what can come from these Front Porch volunteer collaborations. These examples represent Solutions to many common needs and opportunities a community may encounter. By no means is this roster comprehensive, but it’s a start.

What the 3.0 Front Porch network will provide is an opportunity to engage through civic collaboration – often with people you don’t know and may be nothing like you. By taking advantage of these serendipitous engagements, you will provide yourself with the resources that will help you and your community strengthen individual and collective self-efficacy. And through this self-efficacy, and by breaking the habit of the “man on the white horse” our epidemic of loneliness will find a formidable foe … and that foe is us.

Ask yourself: “If not me … then who? And if not now … then when?”

_________________

I realize that we need more than just a prodding to “do something.” I suppose one way is just interacting with your neighbors more, or striking up a conversation with the person behind you in the grocery line. But no matter how many of these ‘one offs’ we do – they’re still just that … ‘one offs.’ Here’s how we can leverage our commitment and make our actions contagious. Just let me know how you feel you would like to participate at clayforsberg@gmail.com.

  • Join the Community 3.0 as a Community Empowerment Concierge (CEC). As a CEC you will help find and set up Front Porches in your community.
  • Or you can help find a CEC in your community and assist them.
  • Or once your community gets set up on the 3.0 network – you can help develop engagement projects (Solutions) in your community’s Front Porches.

Community 3.0 will be up and running in the Fall of 2018

___________________

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2 thoughts on “Battling our Epidemic of Loneliness

  1. Great solutions list — thanks. Like you, I want to persuade local silos to build more bridges, better communication, even narrow catwalks — but will settle for calling out and won’t stop trying. Incidentally

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