What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Humans are born and genetically designed to be in relation to one another. No one is an island unto themselves.
Finding love and getting into relation, however, can be a problem. First, because Western culture discourages dependence on others. Second, because our own fears and weaknesses drive us to separate from those we need most.
Building circles of support are essential to human thriving. How can we build community in the face of these challenges?
Finding your tribe
American culture has atomized us, doing us a great disservice when it comes to how we handle difficulty. By focusing on consumption, the Western model assumes we make "rational choices" in our own interests, and that those interests compete with everyone else's. This hyper-individualistic boot-strappiness comes at a great price to our mental health, and it's something we need to un-learn in order to thrive.
This is perhaps most true for new parents, who feel both the strongest need for community and the greatest social pressure to go it alone. Writer and mother Tarja Parssinen echoed this in her recent Salon article about how American individualism is destroying families. "I lived alone for almost a decade," she said, "but I never actually felt alone until I had children."
Knowing how isolated I felt after my first child was born, with my second I was determined to pay greater attention to my own need for community. So, just a couple of months after my daughter was born, I sought out an opportunity to attend a conference for La Leche League leaders in San Francisco. I was blessed that my best friend was also a leader and attended the conference too; she helped immensely with my daughter, and provided a much needed social outlet. But I had to push past the social stigma of traveling with a young child, and I had to ask for her help, and in order to be able to ask I had to recognize that my need for social interaction and community was as important to me as food. We aren't meant to do difficult things alone.
Building resilience to social anxiety
Adding to the cultural signals we get to bear our burdens alone is often social anxiety. For myself, I have found that one of the weaknesses left over from my childhood is a fear of being rejected. As a mostly extroverted person, social interaction is a daily need, so rejection and isolation can feel like holding my breath underwater.
How does one build the resilience needed to embrace and strengthen this vulnerable part of ourselves? Oddly enough, it’s been through my running that I’ve been confronted with this weakness and been given opportunities to understand how the fear moves through me, so that I can make peace with it.
When I started running again, I discovered the great joy of running socially with others. Long runs are less of a chore when one can chat through the miles, and my new running connections propelled me on, providing acceptance and encouragement. Runners are some of the best people I know; because running is an individual sport, whatever pace you run you will likely find someone to share it. However, it can also lead to anxiety when you’re doing it with someone who is a bit faster or stronger than you.
Once, while out for a group run I met some new friends who were part of an established group. They warmly welcomed me and as we ran, I found the pace challenging but manageable. Later in the run though I struggled to keep up with them. That's when my internal monologue started.
My inner voice said it’s much easier for them, look at them chatting while I lag behind and struggle! I began to be critical of myself and the more critical I was the more it sapped my energy and I began to drop back. I noticed then that as I lagged, they didn’t look back or slow down but kept going and even speeded up a bit, lost in conversation and enjoying the run. This fueled my anxiety, and I began to think they were happy to be rid of me, that I was an anchor slowing them down and it would be best if I just stopped and let them run on ahead while I had some water and felt sorry for myself. But another part of me wanted to press on and try to catch up, and so I continued, struggling with feeling rejected and alone and then finding other things to worry about, like the aggressive black birds on the path (which are less likely to attack a group) or the humidity.
I see and acknowledge that for me, this is a part of the mental challenge of running distances, and it’s a great opportunity to build my own social resilience. Fear of rejection, feeling isolated is exhausting and saps my energy. In the past, it’s led me to only want to run alone, so that there is one less thing for my head to deal with besides the trail, the conditions and my body’s fatigue. But that robs me of vital social opportunities and the support they bring. The best course is for me to be present for my anxiety, find ways to see and accept it and then release it. As I’ve run more, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of this opportunity to see this tender spot in my psyche, acknowledge it and push past it. It is through this repetitive encounter, acceptance and gently pushing on that I exercise this muscle and make friends with my own vulnerability.
Most often, people get wrapped up in their own stuff and simply don’t notice what is going on around them with others. Even more, we often don’t notice what is going on within ourselves. I believe it is the blindness of what’s going on within ourselves that is the greater obstacle to being able to love and connect. It is our own self-blindness that creates the hell of isolation.
When we can acknowledge and assert our need for social connection, we can have those needs met. When we can acknowledge, sit with and practice moving through our fears, we can build the resilience necessary to persist in building those connections. Both of these, recognizing the validity of our needs and the things that get in our own way, can help us find the love, support and connection that bring joy to life, and make it worth the struggle.