‘Loss of Community – Inner Despair’,
Where does our sense of social isolation come from? Our desolate, nostalgic longing for close bonding in a community which we never seem to find? My answer is our custom of bringing up children in the isolated nuclear family (‘Isonuc’ for short). It is strange (at least to me) that this particular answer should be so seldom cited. The emotionally painful longing for community is, I think, well recognised and discussed, but its cause is mis-ascribed. And proposals to cure this dire sense of lost community are grossly inadequate.
The ‘loss of community’ is often attributed (for example) to the historical demise of British village life or the ‘vibrant’ communities of small town America. This superficial explanation focuses on socioeconomic developments over the last hundred or so years. This time-scale and context are, I believe, utterly inadequate to address the magnitude of this problem. The real answer would be to recreate the social and psychological communities of the real human groups who made up hunter-gather society, which (within our species alone) go back 200,000 years. Such modern, re-created, healing communities (‘Prima’ for short) are, I believe, the only effective way to heal our contemporary despair over loss of community. Other proposed solutions, such as attempts to revive village/small-town life, are pathetically weak and flimsy palliatives with which to attempt to bind up this deep and traumatic psychic wound. To compare, for example, the quality of social relationships in small, modern, rural communities with those in Prima is the equivalent of trying to weigh a flea and an elephant on the same scales.
The fatal flaw in the ‘loss of village life’ cause-and-cure explanation lies in its unquestioned commitment to the Isonuc. The strength of the Prima explanation is its basis in modern psychology and neuroscience: we now know that the infant human brain is hard-wired to seek out the dense Prima community in its environment. Having bonded with the mother and then the father, the brain needs to bond with an extended group beyond its two, inadequate attachments within the Isonuc. The complete absence of the Prima community (which is the sad reality for most Western infants) will cause a deep developmental wound. It will permanently affect the brain’s hard-wired emotional systems, especially the one which Jaak Panksepp calls the Panic/Grief system.
As the name implies, the Panic/Grief system mediates our feelings of social exclusion and isolation and the deep sadness and/or panic which these can provoke. Mammalian infants are hard-wired to experience panic on being physically separated from their parents, but also grief and sadness on being excluded from membership of a supportive group. I submit that such feelings of social exclusion and isolation are extremely prevalent among modern people, even the apparently best ‘adjusted’ individuals. These feelings of grief and panic are what drive the many forms of addiction with which we are afflicted; addictions to substances, including food, but also to habitual behaviours, such as consuming pornography, popular tv and, especially these days, social media – and even the many forms of clearly unhealthy personal relationships which we can all observe around us.
What to do? Re-establish the hunter gatherer community! Or – a more nuanced answer – create the Prima! This means reviving the dense and intense social relations of hunter gatherer society within the context of modern society and technology. Is this possible? This is a question which the average person has almost certainly never considered and possibly could not even conceive of. To them the Isonuc is the ‘natural’ form of human family life. They may regret the rising prevalence of divorce, but their ‘remedy’ would be a return to the solid Isonuc ideal of the 1950s, as if the 1950s was some primordial garden of Eden, knocking the 200,000-year history of early humanity into obscurity.