American Loneliness

A Texan in Eugene calls for more empathy and fewer bumper stickers to solve major problems

By Doyle Srader

In Eugene, we have our work cut out for us: homelessness, mental illness, self-medicating with substance abuse, all play out from one end of town to the other. About one out of every six people is food insecure. The schools have severe problems with violent misbehavior and a high dropout rate. And you’d better not turn your back on your bicycle if you ever want to see it again.

I was not born here, and I am not typical of here. I am a native Texan and practicing Southern Baptist. But I also have a Ph.D. and teach college students. I chose to move here 14 years ago, and now I can’t imagine living anywhere else. So in some sense, I think of myself as a third culture individual: My own view of the world skews left, but I’m pretty fluent in perceptions and reasoning widely shared by people on the right.

We know the problems I listed above are rooted in poverty, and if we play whack-a-mole with each other, we’re just slapping band-aids on a deeply broken social order. Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez both find a welcoming audience here for their appeals about addressing structural inequality and generational poverty.

But my family, and my friends and neighbors in Texas, have always been quicker to tie the problems to individual choices: unmotivated workers, poorly raised children, thieves who never learned right from wrong. That’s not incorrect; the world does contain the lazy, the bratty and the grabby. It’s just a different unit of analysis: If you want to save people from dying in house fires, you need to enforce the fire code and incentivize fire resistant buildings and materials — and you also need to prosecute arsonists. 

Since that individual focus is easier to visualize, less complex, less abstract, simpler, there’s always been a different feel to it. Their slogans fit on a bumper sticker. And honestly, that’s kind of a strength. Those who cut to the heart of an issue can be a healthy exercise in mutual rebalancing if each will listen to the other. Big “if,” I know.

What concerns me is that a whole lot of people reading this are not, in some very important ways, playing to our strength. 

If we could ever muster up a truly effective anti-poverty strategy, we would get a toehold on many of its symptoms that bedevil us. I think we all grasp that. But there’s another systemic problem we are fumbling quite badly, because we’re blind to it. Opening our eyes and seeing it might require some seriously bitter medicine. But I can’t see any other choice.

The thing I observe about my progressive friends and neighbors in Eugene is that they survive by laughing, by using wit as a coping strategy. That’s not to say people who skew more conservative don’t like humor; wherever you find humans, you’ll find humor. But people who root for the powerful simply deploy humor differently, and it’s not always the very first outlet for worry, or outrage, or navigating the absurd. And one thing I’ve noticed as political polarization has spiraled up and up is that people I agree with politically voice a lot more raw contempt for their counterparts. And that worries me, because it’s colliding head-on with the other systemic root of a lot of our most acute social woes.

Bernie and AOC are household names in Eugene, but I don’t think Vivek Murthy is, and that’s a problem.

Alongside our global pandemic, we are immersed in a silent epidemic of loneliness: Murthy’s phrase, not mine. Now, that’s not just a Eugene problem; Murthy is the U.S. Surgeon General. And it’s not just an American problem; the U.K. and Japan have created cabinet level Ministers of Loneliness because it is a crisis in both countries. But it’s our problem, too. 

So much of the world seems to have lost the faculty of basic reasoning. From QAnon to vaccine conspiracies to flat Earth to a much longer list, I hear seemingly functional people voice explanations that are downright incoherent. But Zeynep Tufekci summed up the link to the societal rise in loneliness in one powerful phrase that we all need to start repeating to ourselves: “Belonging is stronger than facts.”

When you are starving to death, filthy food suddenly looks edible. When you are drowning, you will push down anything or anyone afloat, just to get your head above water. And when you’re afraid you don’t belong anywhere, you will parrot daft nonsense if doing so is the price of admission to a group that will accept you.

Anyone who then debunks that daft nonsense is not setting you straight; they’re identifying themselves as the enemy of the group, and that just intensifies your belonging. If they reach the limits of their frustration and switch from debunking to mockery, that throws gasoline on the fire.

It’s not just conservative people who are lonely; far from it. But recall that the past several decades have brought sweeping change to societal institutions. I think the changes skew positive, but I know a lot of people who wake up every day to a world unrecognizable as the one they were brought up in. And that drives a very powerful sense of disorientation and not being confident of where they belong.

So now here comes the bitter medicine.

What do I hear all around Eugene? Contempt for vaccine resisters. Cracks about “plague rats” and “spreadnecks.” Very clearly drawn battle lines. And that’s the systemic reason below the visible one, the poverty behind the crime and substance abuse. And it is not entirely the doing of the unvaccinated.

Digital devices have apps that supply instant gratification the moment we click. Twitter gives us little acidic sound bites that entertain us, and erode our stamina to stick with a difficult conversation. We endlessly rehearse separating the world into heroes and villains, which will never help us address our most dire problems, all of which cannot be solved if we give up on collaborating.

I can feel you seething, and I can hear you blaming it all on the antivaxxers and their stupid junk science. But have you ever known both halves of a married couple that went through a truly ugly divorce? Have you ever listened to each of them thoroughly trash the other, while you stood at a distance and recognized it was the dynamic between them that was the problem, and that they both fed into it? Have you ever felt heartbroken for their kids, who were reduced to serving as weapons in a scorched Earth war?

“Neighbor” is a relationship. Your neighbors will not cease to exist just because you find them irrational. You can amicably coexist, or you can pull out all the stops to scorch the Earth. And even if they’re not holding up their end, you —  we — have the option to let constructive neighborship begin with us. The alternative gets us nowhere.

Remember my conservative family and friends who had great slogans and bumper stickers? You rolled your eyes and said, “Yes, and that’s the problem.” But the punchline to a joke is no less of a brutal simplification than a slogan is. In fact, it’s worse; they’re just reducing an issue to a sound bite. The jokes reduce human beings to caricatures. Doing that to an idea is misguided. Doing it to people is violent.

Is it violent of them to put everybody at risk by not getting vaccinated? Sure. But is “they started it” a reason? If you say yes, I suspect it’s from your frustration and fatigue. You want to believe any excuse that makes the mockery OK. But make up your mind: if they’re wrong to cling to untenable positions to manage their feelings, then so are you.

There are hordes of Republican voters who demand tax cut after tax cut, and plenty of corporate CEOs that bank eight digit paychecks, because they grab for their own gratification at the cost of collective well being. I oppose that, and I bet you do, too. Giving in to the temptation to make the vaccine-hesitant, or QAnon believers, or Trump voters, the butt of a joke, is also choosing your own gratification at the cost of the survival of the community.

Certain things should not be for sale to the highest bidder: community drinking water, necessary health care, just to give a couple of examples. Common decency should stop anyone from becoming rich off other people’s misery. But by that precise reasoning, we have to make up our minds that while situations may be easy to mock, people should not be.

I spent part of the summer reading works by and about Heidi Larson. We would do well to learn from her successes. She’s spent the entire 21st century combatting virus hesitancy, first for UNICEF, and now for the European Union. When someone tells her that the polio vaccine is a Western plot to sterilize people of color in the developing world, she calls it fascinating and begs them to tell her all about what they’ve heard. And after she listens respectfully and conveys how much she values them, then she goes further to cultivate a relational bond. And then, and only then, she is in a position to do some good.

She is all of us.

Where I’ll end this is with a challenge: if you’re publicly voicing contempt for people who are not vaccinated, you are a driver of the problem. You are not on the good side. Make that choice if you can’t resist it, but see it clearly and stop deluding yourself. And if you want to venture beyond complaining and instead do something constructive, look around for the nearest person you can listen to. When they see that you care, then what you know about the vaccine will make a difference to them, but not until.

The exact same impulse that moves you to see a lot of social problems as symptoms of more deeply rooted poverty should also move you to take a step back from treating failed reasoning with disdain. People who are trying to find a place to belong will align tightly with the beliefs of anyone who accepts them. Get busy showing them that you accept them, even if they don’t accept you. Especially if they don’t accept you. Ridicule is just gasoline on the fire.

Doyle Srader lives in Eugene. A shorter version of this viewpoint appeared in print.