The holiday season is a joyous time for most, but not for all. For some—for too many—it’s a lonely time. And yet in that sadness is an opportunity both to do good and to make real change.
We’ve all known people who have died lonely deaths. And while each sad story was different, one reality connects many of them: People die sooner when they are alone.
Aristotle had it right 2500 years ago: Man is a zoon politikon—a political animal. That is, he is naturally sociable; indeed, he is blessed with the power of speech so that he can communicate with his fellows. So it’s right and proper, the Greek philosopher continued, that man reaches his highest good in a social context. And as for the man with no state or society, well, he’s a sad case, to be compared to “a bird which flies alone.”
We can further add that it’s only within a social context that the greatest virtues, such as honor and loyalty, are revealed. Yes, it’s that sense of connectedness that fosters not only happiness, but also courage. Thus the famous 1842 poem from Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, in which the Roman soldier, Publius Horatius, rallies his men for the fight ahead:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.”
Next comes Macaulay’s most famous quatrain, which has inspired many a soldier to do his patriotic duty:
“And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods.”
So we can see: Connectedness is a worthy humanitarian goal, and it’s also a worthy patriotic-nationalist goal. And what’s needed to turn both of these goals into something real is a societal and cultural vision of mutuality: We’re in this together; we share a duty to each other. That’s the vision that inspires Boy Scouts to help old folks across the street. That’s the vision that inspires first responders to go running up the stairs when others are running down. That’s the vision that inspires strangers to decorate the graves of our military heroes. And we can all think of myriad other acts of kindness, decency, and bravery; all together, they are what make an assemblage of people into a harmonious and strong nation.
Yet now here’s some disturbing news, in the form of a December 22 headline in The New York Times: “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us.” Okay, a Breitbart reader might be forgiven for shaking his or her head at the mere mention of the Times, but in this case, the article is entirely non-political; the word “Obama,” for example, doesn’t appear, nor do the words “racism,” “homophobia,” “Islamophobia,” etc. Instead, what we get from Dr. Dhruv Khullar, of Massachusetts General Hospital, is a blizzard of sad statistics:
Social isolation is a growing epidemic, one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.
About one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do. . . . Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent. . . . Socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and . . . this effect was largest in middle age.
That last point about “middle age” is a reminder that the dolorous phenomenon of loneliness and ill-health has been spreading into the middle class; in 2015, the Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case noted a spike in the death rate in the American heartland. As Deaton explains:
Half a million people are dead who should not be dead. About 40 times the Ebola stats. You’re getting up there with [deaths from] HIV-AIDS.”
Reacting to this report with his characteristic clarity earlier this year, Breitbart’s John Hayward dubbed it the “white death,” and he linked the bad news to ongoing larger trends of economic decay and civilizational decline:
The more disturbing analyses of the “white death” envision a middle-aged population looking forward to a long twilight of financial worries and uncertain purpose, less able to rely on the material and emotional resources of large, close-knit families than earlier generations.
Indeed, it’s fair to say that the fate of the middle class—largely, but certainly not entirely, white—was the decisive issue in the 2016 election: In his campaign, Donald Trump addressed the concerns of ordinary people, while, of course, Hillary Clinton regarded them as “deplorable.”
Now, looking ahead, we can trust that the Trump administration will be working with the Republicans in Congress to restore prosperity and security to Middle America, and yet even so, we must recognize that jobs and policing are not the whole answer, because there’s still the long-term problem of increased loneliness and isolation.
So what’s the solution? How do we help our fellow Americans? Khullar, the Massachusetts physician, has his answer, which might be summed up as, Whatever people are doing now to be sociable, let’s have more of it. That is, more human contact, more participation in what are called “mediating institutions,” such as churches and social clubs—and yes, even online social media. Khullar added that the value of structured programs should be further tapped:
For example, Dr. Paul Tang of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation started a program called linkAges, a cross-generational service exchange inspired by the idea that everyone has something to offer. The program works by allowing members to post online something they want help with: guitar lessons, a Scrabble partner, a ride to the doctor’s office. Others can then volunteer their time and skills to fill these needs and “bank” hours for when they need something themselves.
We can immediately observe that this sort of participatory endeavor need not be a federal program; what’s needed is heart, not bureaucracy.
Yet at the same time, one can see a positive role to be played by the “political animals” that Aristotle described long ago.
In politics, as the 2016 elections have just reminded us, victory usually goes to the candidate or the party that best connects to public concerns. It’s a pollster’s cliche that the winner in an election is the one about whom the voters say, “He or she cares about people like me.”
And it’s always been thus: People support the candidate who supports them. Back in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that his campaign against Herbert Hoover and his economic depression—unemployment at 25 percent—would be predicated on remembering the “forgotten man.” So of course FDR won. And four years later, a famous cartoon by Clarence Batchelor of The New York Daily News summed up the new political reality: The workingman, glad to have hope again, tells Roosevelt, “Yes, you remembered me.” And so, in his 1936 re-election campaign, FDR carried 46 of 48 states.
Today, one needn’t be a fan of specific New Deal programs nevertheless to understand the political potency of the New Deal as an inclusive agenda. Thus we can ask: What’s going to be the next vision of inclusivity? Who will find some new way to make people feel connected?
So in addition to the manifest ethical, spiritual, and humanitarian imperatives to be nice to one’s fellow humans, especially one’s fellow citizens, we should realize that there’s a huge political opportunity in connectedness: the opportunity to include, if not everyone, then at least a large majority, in a happy vision of affiliation, affinity—and, ultimately, victory.