[New School] Feeling lonely? ‘Social distancing’ is not a pandemic phenomenon

Enrikko Sibayan
[New School] Feeling lonely? ‘Social distancing’ is not a pandemic phenomenon
'Great social divides exist in our time — we all feel it, we know it'

One day, while I was eating at a mall restaurant, a peculiar sight caught my eye. A lone medical worker, dressed in scrubs and carrying a backpack, was eating alone after work at a nearby table. This lonesome scene drew parallels with both my personal experiences of pandemic solitude and the broader isolations that characterize modern society.

As a fourth-year student, I have been reflecting on my impending exit from the oasis that is university life. As I adjust to a new normal, the lockdown solitude and post-lockdown re-socialization I have been experiencing serve as tell-tale signs of the atomizing tendencies of modern society.

Modern society isolates you — atomizes you — in almost every aspect of your life. “Social distancing” is not a pandemic phenomenon. Rather, it is one of modernity. The pandemic just put a name on it.

Social distancing is not new. During the pandemic, it is power asymmetry, economic isolation, and social exclusion. In modern society, social distancing is social atomization.

Five horsemen of atomization

To help illustrate how modern society atomizes us, let me recast the lone medical worker I mentioned previously as a narrative device going through the “five horsemen of atomization.”

First, imagine the worker working in a hospital and interacting with their colleagues. Despite being co-workers, the worker isn’t really friends or close with them. They then go out to eat during lunch break. Everyone is on their phones. They talk, but not really. After work, the worker leaves using a private car. They drive alone in a metal box, separated from other drivers in their own metal boxes. The worker eats dinner alone at a mall restaurant. On the way home, perhaps the worker meets up with someone. They have a one-night stand. After that, the worker wakes up alone in a single condominium unit.

I have just narrated how someone could go a whole day without real human connection. To help grasp this pervasive atomization, I divided it into five “horsemen”: work, technology, transportation, relationships, and home. We all experience a horseman of atomization in one way or another in our daily lives.

At work, we perhaps are isolated in our office cubicles. Or now, it might be alone through the work-from-home setups. Even students experience this during online learning. Whether in the cubicle or in front of a laptop screen, we are atomized.

In the technology of today, we are constantly on our smartphones. We revel in superficial interaction on our social media. We forget how to make conversation in our pursuit of getting entertained.

In transportation, we are alone whether we take a private car or public bus. While we are literally alone in a car, we actively practice civil inattention when taking public transport.

For our relationships, we like to set a certain “safe” distance between us and the other. We often prefer no labels in our love lives, afraid of intimacy or commitment. We talk to our many friends, but we don’t really talk with them.

Finally at home, modern society isolates us more and more in where we live. Whether in individual condominium units or secluded gated communities, we seek to distance ourselves from others.

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Utterly alone yet surrounded

To cope with the atomization we know and feel, we look to consumerism. Consumption becomes a coping mechanism for atomized individuals in modern society. We eat, shop, and entertain ourselves to hide and bury the deep loneliness we feel. We surround ourselves with the company of consumption.

The feeling of being “utterly alone yet surrounded by people” caps off the atomization of modern society. We may feel this feeling whether in our work, technology, transportation, relationships, or home. The most literal embodiment of this feeling is the superficial socialization often seen in party life.

Social atomization has many historical causes. These span structural factors like urbanization and anonymity, Western values like individualism, and the impact of modern technology. Despite these seemingly unchangeable factors, we must not forget our own agency in changing things. Every value had its progenitor, and each technology its inventor.

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No man is an island

I cannot prescribe a comprehensive plan of action for addressing social atomization. However, I think that the elements of a successful “de-atomization” cannot use atomized approaches. In other words, we cannot solve the problems of loneliness in modern society alone.

A homily I heard the other day outlines a way out of the atomizing quandary we find ourselves in. The Gospel of the day, Luke 16: 19-31, highlights a great chasm that has been fixed between us. Great social divides exist in our time — we all feel it, we know it.

The priest then asks, “Do you know the name of the janitor who sweeps the floor or cleans your classroom? Have you recognized him?” Similarly, do we know the name of the waiter who serves us our food in a mall restaurant? Have we recognized them?

Just as the pandemic put a name to social distancing, the same we must do to others for a wholly different reason. We must name them to recognize them. Because by recognizing the other, the chasms between us vanish. Whole life stories suddenly take the place of nameless faces. This is the revolutionary act of stepping into the life of another person.

Social atomization cannot be defeated by simply looking up from our phones. I won’t ask you to do something as cliché and unoriginal as that. Instead, we start by knowing their name — daring to enter the chaos of another in real human connection. This act is not new either; some already do it. But it is an important first step in de-atomizing yourself. In other words, de-atomizing the self is bound up with the de-atomization of others. Lilla Watson, alongside an Aboriginal activists group in Queensland, similarly reminds us of why we must work together: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” –

Enrikko Sibayan is a fourth-year student of the Ateneo de Manila University, currently taking an AB-MA in Political Science, major in Global Politics, and a minor in Development Management.

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