Addressing the Problem of Loneliness

So for the past six months I’ve been thinking about the problem of loneliness, which I wrote about in my previous post. I have come to realize that that post, while accurately portraying my perception of the problem for a few months and especially the last two weeks in Asheville, was not an accurate understanding of my actual problem. I’ll share here how I worked through the fallacies to distill the problem to what is inextricable from my situation, and how I am currently working through the real, distilled problem that came out of this process. I am sharing the whole process with you, rather than just the conclusions, because I want other travelers and travelers-to-be to see how they can work through the often difficult emotional terrain that comes with nomadism in the 21st century.

Asking the Right Questions

How much of this is just a negative spiral from temporary hardship?

I suspect a good deal of it. I often feel pretty alone, but the gravity of the feeling is no doubt temporary. Wild Roots was a necessary step on my journey, but the conditions in that place were unusual, and not what I am going to have to deal with for most of my journey to come. I forgot this, I think, because I spent six months there. It’s easy to mistake those temporary conditions for the whole of reality.

Similarly, Asheville is, to many’s surprise, the worst city I’ve ever been to in regards to the way it treats the street culture. Some of this is understandable. The street culture in Asheville has a reputation, a bad reputation, and it is bad for good reasons. Further, tourist areas are always terrible for travelers — and Asheville is definitely now a tourist destination — and the “infrastructure” for homelessness there tends to convince high-minded liberal elites that the city is already giving enough for the marginal among them to live well. This explains why Ashevilleans, more than any of the cityfolks in the U.S. I’ve encountered so far, disdain having to interact with anyone who looks like a street rat. I sort of knew this, rationally, as I was experiencing hardship in the city last week. I think I went into an emotional spiral anyway because it was my first lengthy encounter with the outside world after living in the forest for six months.

Because I was in the middle of this spiral, I took minor problems at Chapel Hill as indicative of my life from here on out. In reality, the world is not as bleak as I was wont to believe.

How much of this is a typical after-college experience?

Much of my experience in Chapel Hill, in particular, seems to be normal for anyone after college. Of course I will feel somewhat distant from friends after we’ve gone such radically different directions with our lives. Of course some people are going to finally reveal that they didn’t like me after all. Of course I’m going to look back on such a tight-nit community atmosphere with nostalgia when most of the world is never going to reach the level of intimacy college campus relationships do. Of course, of course, of course — I just needed time to think about it, in conditions that were stable enough for me to give the problem its proper attention.

What am I forgetting about loneliness in the city?

I was this lonely once before: the first two years of college. Went months without talking to anyone, except in class, sometimes. It was to the point that I was going to the store at midnight to buy a candy bar, hoping I could use the opportunity to talk to the cashiers. Then, suddenly, I had friends. Here, then, is yet another way university has benefited me profoundly, by demonstrating that I can get over this hump with a lot of good will, a little bit of willpower, patience, and the right conditions. Not a tall order.

What’s the Real Problem?

It’s twofold. First, I can’t be in the forest full time unless I find at least one other person to come with me. So do I try to find people, or do I change what I’m doing to meet everyone else where they’re at? Unsure of how to answer this question at the moment.

Second, I need to reject the humanist mentality more fully. I’ve written before that humanism is the dominant ideology of modern industrial society: this gospel preaches the unity of humanity as a moral family, the equality of each human being, and the need to obliterate oppression to more fully integrate the marginalized into the story of Progress. This is entirely suited to the needs of modern society and entirely not suited to the needs of individual human beings. (For a fuller explanation, read under the heading “Rebuke the Idols of Civilization” in the article “Taking Rewilding Seriously.”)

In other words, my expectation to be treated well in the city stems from an unexamined moral assumption: that I and these strangers are bound together within legitimate community boundaries, and we therefore deserve each other’s respect and civility. But fuck that. I’m descending into savagery. The whole point is to become illegitimate, and to be okay with tightening my small circle of relations even at the expense of the larger, civil society. Recall again Peter Lamborn Wilson’s account of the Ishmaels, a group of freed and runaway slaves who settled in a 1975 wilderness:

They mingled with Pawnee Indians and took up a nomadic life modeled on that of local hunter-gatherer tribes. Led by a ‘king’ and ‘queen,’ Ben and Jennie Ishmael, […] they were known as fine artisans, musicians and dancers, abstainers from alcohol, practitioners of polygamy, non-Christian, and racially integrated […] By about 1810 they had established a cycle of travel that took them annually from Indianapolis (where their village gradually became a city slum) through a triangle formed by the hamlets of Morocco and Mecca in Indiana and Mahomet in Illinois …

Later ‘official’ white pioneers detested the Ishmaels, and apparently the feeling was mutual. From about 1890 comes this description of an elder: ‘He is an anarchist of course, and he has the instinctive, envious dislike so characteristic of his people, of anyone in a better condition than himself.’ […] The observer continues: ‘He abused the law, the courts; the rich, factories — everything.’ The elder stated that ‘the police should be hanged’; he was ready, he said, to burn the institutions of society. ‘I am better than any man that wears store clothes.’

Of course, I do not wish to become quite as hostile. But even without the hostility the story provokes a most important question: What better indication of my uncivilization’s success than the experience of foreignness within civilization?

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