Last week, on NPR’s Science Friday, the host, Ira Flatow interviewed U. S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on the National Youth Mental Health Crisis and the Loneliness Crisis in our nation. These crises not only greatly affect our nation, but much of the world.
And they’re not due just to the pandemic. As much research has revealed, social media is also deeply responsible. Murthy describes how it often targets young people; over 1/3 of children say they feel addicted. Many are focused on their phones and computers over 3 hours a day. Social media can be great for several reasons, including helping underrepresented communities get and keep in touch with others. But it fosters unwelcome comparisons between people that leads to an increase in negative self-image, depression, anxiety, violence, and bullying, and a decrease in sleep and eye to eye, real time friendship.
One recommendation made by Murthy is to create safety standards regulating how companies target groups and requiring they disclose research data they’ve accumulated on the effects of the media. Another recommendation is fostering in-person communities.
Recently, I was lucky enough to be part of an unusual event. 50 years ago, 3 groups plus additional friends interested in different aspects of social change came together to buy a piece of property and establish a community. One was based around a free school, another around economic change, the third was about social-personal change, and creating a safe place for people who are LGBTQ+. For a few years, around 40-50 people lived on the land in separate but friendly groups.
Now, only about 6 of us from the groups remain here, in separate homes, living alone or as a couple.
So, we had a reunion. And besides being fun, it reminded me, us, of why we had originally come together and the values which, at that time, shaped our lives. And I realized that, since DJT and the pandemic, our need for such communities has only increased and become more apparent.
And we’ve joined a new group. Last spring, many neighbors on the road where we live or nearby formed a group to get to better know and help each other. We have potlucks every month and a newsletter. Last winter, the rented home of a neighbor burned down, and they didn’t have enough money to rebuild. Some gave financial donations. One gave them a small piece of land to build a new home. Another helped organize the building and provided a room to temporarily live in. Several people helped move the firewood from the old home site to the new one.
In addition to the neighborhood group, retired K-12 teachers, and administrators from the school district where I taught came together to lobby the school district to get a better health care policy and share information. We had realized the insurance we had from the school district was not doing what it promised to do.
We live in interlocking nets or webs of communities. In my life, not only are there the groups I’ve already mentioned, but a zoom group of college friends, a weekly zoom meditation group or sangha. Then there’s the community created by my master teacher of the martial arts, the colleagues, students, and parents of the community school where I worked, my relatives, etc.
And all this new coming together seemed to be happening organically, simply as a deep response to a culture divided, threatened, and suffering from shock.
Yet, I realize conflicting impulses in me, a hunger for close ties to others, and a fear of it. Our culture, with its individualistic emphasis, it’s demand for material justifications for whatever we do, limits the depth of any drive we have for a mutually responsive community.
I yearn to be able to simply hang out with people. To be able to just walk to a friend or neighbor’s house when I need to, especially as I get older, and be part of a community of people who care for, help, and inspire each other. And I fear being burdened or swamped when others want the same and I want to be alone.
There’s an image in my mind of being alone on a mountain, gazing at vast distances, enjoying a communion with nature and myself. And there’s the image and joy of returning from the mountain to communion with others. Being so open with any one person can be tricky. But with more than one person, how do we do it?
How do we resolve this? How do we successfully be a member of a cooperative group and true to ourself? One reason the land groups described earlier lost so many people was we were unclear when we first came together what it would require from us. We were too young and inexperienced.
We need to continuously study our yearnings and resistance to them sincerely and mindfully. To be honest about what we’re prepared to do. And⎼
I just finished this week’s zoom group or sangha meditation session. After the meditation, the teacher, David Loy, spoke about the need for sangha. He shared a story from the Pali Canon, in which the Buddha said that “admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.” The group discussion afterwards touched me in several ways, not the least of which was the synchronicity; this discussion took place literally minutes after I had written the above portion of this blog. The discussion made clear the need to value and simply be with others, to let go, and go beyond our idea of us being totally separate selves into a deeper way of being.
And this is the essence of what making real changes in our society requires, including the changes the land groups had embraced 50 years ago and are so needed today. We don’t make real change alone. We make it with others.
We can make being with others a practice. An opportunity. To listen, to take political action when needed, and to create community with our very speech. This provides so much to us. Maybe it can also include lessons on how solitude and community can work together, so we more deeply understand the innumerable aspects of our society, and ourselves.
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock