Friday, August 28, 2009

The Social Animal

We are lonely.

In New York City, where I live, I'm surrounded by people every day. On the street, on the subway, there's never a second when I'm not alone.

But there is a difference between being around people and really connecting with people. Physical proximity and social cyberspace aren't substitutes for relationship, and we as a culture are starting to feel the weight of that truth. It's part of the reason, in my opinion, that Starbucks has become the corporate and cultural giant it has. You can make coffee at home, but the community that Starbucks provides- a fundamental component of their mission statement, by the way- draws people in droves.

Still, we pick up our latte and sit alone with our computers, rather than talk to those around us. Or we go out to dinner with a friend or spouse sneaking glances at the people one table over, rather than saying hello and striking up a conversation.

The reality is, we are social animals. Just like dogs that sniff and roll around with each other as a means of introduction, we too long to get close and personal. That's not to say we should start nuzzling strangers at cocktail parties, but we've gone to the other extreme, becoming isolationists in a social context.

In my practice, I've recently started suggesting social interaction along with personal introspection as a recipe for progress and growth. And it's working! Joining a choir, establishing a Friday morning coffee group, participating in a hiking club and volunteering are really making a difference in the lives of my clients.

It's not just benefitting them individually, but their marriages and partnerships as well. Without realizing it, our loneliness has caused us to expect too much from the one relationship we do consciously allow ourselves to look and long for. That bridge isn't built to carry that much weight though, so all too often it collapses under the pressure.

But when we recognize the difference between our relational needs and our foundational social needs, and fulfill them both via the proper channels, everyone thrives. Our lives become more rich, and we feel more fulfilled.

Not that that's going to stop me from going to Starbucks every morning... : )

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Blogger graham said...

Nice post, I agree. Check out some of these inspiring quotes from a speech Ted Kennedy gave in 1968:

"we have let the haters take the lead and now we're paying the price"

"we can only turn to ourselves"

August 28, 2009 at 3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey Jennifer,
I like your post a lot :-)

I guess it is the natural habitualness deep-rooted inside the 'human animals' that slows them down and keeps them away from seeking new exciting things or from getting to know new and wonderful people...trying to stay with you mind in the present and watching your environment while walking through the city is not so easy, as you have so many things in your mind concerning the past or your future...the goal might be to keep the child in you as long as you can...because:

I think that little by little we forget how to gaze at things. We trained ourselves to walk fast, talk fast and organize ourselves just perfectly ...passing by so many beautiful things and not even realizing it.

For me 'life is a wonderful trip'...but some prefer to walk all the way and some prefer a race car ;-)


August 29, 2009 at 5:08 AM  
Anonymous Sally Morgan said...

You are... the most awesome, open heart ever, I'm privileged to be your friend.

August 30, 2009 at 9:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I much agree with you, Jennifer, about the omnipresence of loneliness in our technological age. There exist so many forums out there for “communication” these days--Facebook, MySpace, instant messaging, and texting, etc.--but what we truly lack is authentic face-to-face and eye-to-eye expression. Having grown up in a small, rural town, I’m constantly amazed by NYC life: the tight jaws, the down-turned eyes, and the altogether disconcerting surprise on another’s face when I offer a “good are you?” to a “stranger.” (Of course, this may depend upon the neighborhood.) And I’m not really setting up a juxtaposition between rural and urban life here, as such a disposition also exits in the latter to many degrees.

I love your comments about dogs! One of my best friends, Max, was a dog, and he was viscerally social; I could always read his life in his eyes, as I believe he could mine. I’ve often wondered why we had such a close connection. My answer--to this date--is that it was disarming. Purely disarming. So my rhetorical question is, “What has happened to us, as a culture, that encourages alienation...and not a dog’s life?” Granted, writers, artists, and post-modern philosophers have mused upon and articulated many reasons why we have become essentially anti-social. But who controls our expression and our relationships with others??? Us, purely, or that which inundates us???

Joining others in a common purpose/passion mixed with a healthy dose of introspection is a wonderful beginning (and perhaps end, ultimately), which is part of the meaning I gleaned from your post, Jennifer. Living easily, openly, honestly, and with passion for self and others and the ebb and flow of nature is key. Thank you!

September 3, 2009 at 9:18 PM  

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