After 4 years of being away, I finally found some time to go back to my hometown, stay with my family in the same house where I grew up, and see once again all my childhood friends. I expected it to be relaxing and refreshing, but I was thoroughly unprepared for how enjoyable & blissful it turned out to be. The truth is that my childhood memories, despite being amazingly great overall, had also featured aspects that I can’t imagine reliving. Fights at home. Relentless nagging. Being forced to do things I hated. Insensitive and hurtful friends. I rarely had to put up with such things in my current life, and I’d be lying if I claimed not to feel some trepidation at the thought of having to wade in those waters once again.
The next few weeks proved my misgivings to be completely misplaced. Far from all these negative aspects that I had been obsessing over, what I truly felt was this great joy at reconnecting with the people in my life whom I’ve known ever since my childhood. There were still the things that annoyed me, but I also realized how much they were dwarfed by the simple feeling of belonging. Being around loved ones and friends who still care and remember after years of separation, made me realize how impoverishing the life of superficial relationships can be. The past few weeks gave me a sense of peace, serenity and tranquility that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
Too often, we hear about all the negative aspects of society and social relationships. Unfair power structures; people being insensitive; people judging your choices and accomplishments; family disapproving of your lifestyle; suffocating traditions and cultural norms. On hearing all these things, detaching ourselves from these communities & relationships seems like the right thing to do, so that we can be free.
I think people tend to overlook something though. The greatest tyranny & sob story that trumps all the above: That of being alone, in a sea of strangers and superficial acquaintances.
Despite all the imperfections in our friends, family and society… despite everything they put us through, and I’m sure we subconsciously put them through as well… our social relationships and our community still give our lives meaning. They give us a story and a narrative, complete with characters and personalities. They give us social capital, holding our society together and giving it a bond that transcends simple co-existence. They make us feel valued – that our existence matters.
People always write about the injustices inflicted by society. About the ways we can be hurt by our friends, family and community. These are all valid concerns that need to be addressed.
But people rarely write about the polar opposite. Few write about the tyranny of social isolation that can result if one were to live life as a hermit. Few write about how meaningless life can be when living in a society where everyone is non-judgmental but has only the most superficial of connections with one another. Some TED speakers and authors and have done an excellent job of highlighting the lethality of loneliness, and how America is increasingly becoming a lonely place. Unfortunately, they find themselves lost in a sea of books & articles that focus only on the negative side of human relationships. The trend of college graduates moving back in with parents has gotten plenty of press, but far too few worry about the 40% of Americans who feel lonely at any given time.
Ultimately, the relationships that really matter are also the ones that can hurt us the most. Let us seek to better live together and resolve any problems we cause for each other without realizing it. But let us not seek to address these problems by simply watering down all relationships and settling for apathetic co-existence. In the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, here’s a toast to the family, friends and co-workers in our life. They may be annoying, exasperating, insensitive, misinformed and unreliable. But they also give our lives color, depth and meaning. No man is an island, and no great story features a recluse.