Unlearning: Why Social Isolation Feels Shitty

Sure, the last decade or so, it’s been popular to say, “I hate people” and “I can’t wait to stay home all the time.” Now that we’re being asked to do so, many of us realize there are downsides to social isolation. Truth is . . . that’s a real thing with drastic, negative impacts. In sociology, we call it “anomie.”

Straightforwardly, anomie means “normlessness.” In other words, social norms are the rules keeping society together (i.e. don’t pick your nose in public, don’t murder, etc.). Without norms, we have no direction, no guidance, no manual for how to behave. I grumble often about how arbitrary our social norms are (*cough*capitalism*cough*), but purpose still exists in our social structures. All sacred texts are norm manuals. The things our parents teach us are norm manuals. Whenever someone says there’s no manual for life, they’re wrong. Our life manuals are created by our societies and cultures.

It’s why I still find The Walking Dead (TWD) fascinating.

Did I lose you? Come back to me.

If you don’t watch TWD, you likely know the basics: a virus causes dead people to turn into the living dead who, at the beginning of the series, could navigate stairs but strangely devolved. But that’s a plot bunny for another day. (Don’t click the link if gruesomeness is not your thing.) What many don’t realize is the zombies/walkers aren’t the crux of the series; it’s how to survive, how to navigate a civilization with no rules, how to rebuild and make things feel normal again even though they never will be. That’s what makes certain characters so dangerous. They recognize their power can be used to create a new set of rules based upon their desires and whims. (Is Negan Trump? No. Because at least Negan is funny, attractive, and has human moments.)

I don’t mean to suggest the COVID-19 outbreak is akin to the post-apocalyptic world of TWD, but the thing scratching at us is the feeling of navigating a society we don’t recognize, the same struggle as the characters in TWD. No one from Generation X or younger has been asked to stay home, stay away from work, stay away from one another, avoid public gatherings, cancel whole seasons of sports, and postpone whole concert tours. For most of us, this is uncharted territory. Yes, the word “unprecedented” gets overused, but there is truth to it. Humanity has faced pandemics before, but our generations have not. Worse, most social change takes decades. Americans and several other countries did it in less than a week. Of course, this is weighing on us. How could it not?

Weirdly, we’re also the generations best geared for it. Those of us privileged to have the internet at home are so stupidly fortunate. Professor and political scientist Robert Putnam wrote a whole book about how our society is moving away from community and public activity, and he wrote it twenty years ago. Since then, we’ve gotten streaming television and broader social media use. We’re a society angled toward staying home. That’s why so many people are like “Fuck outside. I’m staying home!” Home is where our modern definition of fun resides. (I have no intention of watching Tiger King. But I will anyway.)

Even those of us who enjoy staying home must acknowledge, we still need people. Without them, we become isolated. That isolation is, at best, damaging. It causes us to lose our sense of reality. We don’t have others to say, “Hey, that’s not cool” and “Oh my gosh, thank you for meeting with me!” We can still do that virtually, but we are less likely to do it from home. What’s scary about that is–the first time anomie was studied–it was in conjunction with the patterns of suicide. The negative impacts of social isolation are, yes, deadly. To say we need social connections is an understatement.

Using the textbook from when I was still regularly teaching sociology, anomie can cause a skewed sense of reality, mental illness, and physical illness. I know we like to say we don’t need people, we don’t care what others think, and so on (Americans are especially prone to this because we are an isolated nation that values independence), but without people, we don’t develop. The most extreme cases of social isolation are seen in feral children, kids who don’t have human contact or suffer neglect in their early development years.

What we’re experiencing right now is a massive, sudden, shocking social shift for which we were recreationally prepared, but not emotionally or socially because:

  • we need other people,
  • we lose our sense of reality,
  • we’re grieving a way of life, and
  • people are suffering and dying, and the best thing we can do is nothing.

That last point is particularly damaging because if you ask people what their purpose is in life, they often say to help others. Pair helplessness with everything else we’re feeling, and it gets bleak.

The cool thing about human beings is we’re creative. We’re finding ways to cope with social isolation. That said, we must still acknowledge how important our society and other people are to us. They remind us of who we are, why we do what we do, what to avoid, and “how to get through this thing called life.

So, yeah. It’s OK to feel freaked out, sad, directionless, grief-filled, scared, anxious, uncertain, lonely, and down. Hell, it’s OK to feel elated to stay home (at times, I certainly am). But what we must admit is we need one another. We must unlearn the belief that we are independent beings who need nothing and no one. We must relearn the value in social connection.