given by Wendy Willis, Frontiers of Democracy 2017

When we imagine loneliness—or at least I when I imagine it—I think of an elderly woman, a widow, maybe, living alone in her one-bedroom apartment, nibbling on her baked potato and waiting for Sunday afternoon when her son will call. I imagine her washing her dish, reading for a few minutes, and turning off the light as one day folds into the next. It is a sad, individual fate that I—being a woman of a certain age—wish and hope to avoid by being especially kind to my children.

As it turns out, though, loneliness is both broader and deeper than my imagined version of the widow with the too busy and far-flung family. Apparently, loneliness is the new sitting, which for a few months, was the new smoking. According to recent reports, social isolation and loneliness increases mortality at the same rate as 15 cigarettes a day. And loneliness is about twice as dangerous to our health as obesity. Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, contributing to a whole host of illnesses, including arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease.

Loneliness and isolation have consequences for the young and the vital, as well. We know that teenagers feel loneliness in direct proportion to the amount of time they spend on social media. It turns out that socializing online gives a quick hit of connection and sense of well-being, which then rapidly dissipates, leaving us feeling unsatisfied and left out. And consider this: The war correspondent, Sebastian Junger, in his book, Tribe, argues that returning soldiers suffer at least as much from the transition out of a purposeful highly connected society as they do from exposure to combat. In other words, re-entry into the individualism and disconnection of American civilian society is nearly as traumatizing as war itself.

This is, of course, complicated by colonialism and other forms of large-scale displacement piled on top of economic instability and an ethos of middle-class mobility. Because of all those forms of uprooting, social ties are frayed and sometimes entirely broken, making it difficult for many—if not most—people to find long-term, meaningful relationships outside the immediate family.

In fact, nearly half of all Americans report that they are lonely, double the number of those who reported being lonely thirty years ago. Loneliness, as we’re talking about it here, can mean many things, but one of the things it means is the yearning for a meaningful and authentic conversation. In the most recent General Social Survey, the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has tripled since 1985. And the number of people with which they say they can have an important conversation has dropped from three to two, but half of those who answered said that they had not had a conversation about things that mattered to them over the past six months, even if they technically could have.

Loneliness is physical and palpable, and many experts suggest that it is also contagious. As Olivia Laing writes in her book, The Lonely City: “It advances . . . cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.”  I tell you all this today both because loneliness has real consequences for how we run a society—and of course a representative democracy–but also because I think we may have access to at least some of the remedies right in this room.

As all of the alarm bells were going off about loneliness and despair this past year, Hannah Arendt was making another huge comeback on the nation’s reading list. From what I hear from my local book shop owner, The Origins of Totalitarianism is once again in high demand. But, for our purposes, she helps us clarify what it is we are worried about when it comes to loneliness and its implications for self-governance and democratic society-building. She makes important distinctions between solitude and isolation and loneliness. Solitude is essentially a fact. In order to think and discern clearly and well, we must do it alone, inside the confines of our own minds and then check our thinking against the ideas of others when we re-enter the social realm. Isolation, however, is a political condition in the sense that people who are isolated from one another cannot or will not work together to create something in their shared interest nor can they organize to resist tyranny. But loneliness is another matter altogether. It is existential and is a pre-condition to not just tyranny but to totalitarianism. As Arendt puts it:

[T]otalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.

Though I myself am deeply protective of my own solitude—and sometimes would even say my own loneliness—this rings true to me and has roots in our economic and political times—sophisticated and highly marketed materialism, rampant social and professional competitiveness, exploitation and fungibility of individuals by the market, and ideological purity and scorn in the broadcast blood sport that is politics. All of those things—particularly when added together—push us toward a type of fundamental aloneness that threatens our sense of ourselves as stewards of a common future. Arendt reminds us that loneliness not only undermines our capacity for collective action—as isolation does—but it also de-stabilizes our sense of self in a way that makes us vulnerable to the clarity and certainty of radical ideology and totalitarianism.

And yet, as Arendt also suggests, there are seeds of change right before us. I love this poem by another German-born American, Lisel Mueller. Mueller and her family fled the NAZIs just before the war and landed in Illinois. Here is her poem, “Things.”


What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.

We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,

and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.

Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.

I love this poem for its tenderness toward the material world and for its attentiveness to kinship, and I commend it to you as you return home or even to your hotel room full of sad neglected objects patiently waiting for your attention. But I share it with you here because of the turn near the end, “Even what was beyond us/was recast in our image.” “We gave the country a heart.” Yes, right. We are a metaphoric people, and those metaphors offer us some sense of what might heal us. And Mueller’s poem reminds me that we—those of us working in democracy and deliberative practices–have access to some of the medicine for what ails so many of us and our neighbors. People around us are literally dying for lack of connection and purpose. And the work of democracy is dripping with both connection and purpose.

As I think about the potential, I am chastened a bit. All too often, I find myself falling into the traps set by efficiency and goal-orientation. I find myself “cutting to the chase” so that communities I am working with can make some decisions and get on with it. I find myself saying things like, “I want to respect your time.” But what if I were to respect something in addition to their time? What if I were to center those healing values of connection and individual purpose in my own work? What if—alongside hard-nosed public decision-making and rational deliberation–we also considered people’s needs to connect with one another in less goal-driven but meaningful conversation around things that matter to them? I know—speaking for myself—I often think that the solutions to civic and political problems—like rising authoritarianism—require civic and political interventions. And they do. But, what if—in our work–we decide to speak to people’s full selves, not just their big smart frontal lobes, but also to the parts of them that are anxious and fretting and alone? What if we listened to meet the needs of the body politic, yes, but also the needs of the human body. I know we do some of this now, and sometimes we do it very well, and we leave our communities better off and more connected than they were when we got there. But, I for one, know I could do better. I could slow down and extend hospitality from the heart, not just the head. And if I did better—if we all did better–perhaps we could, in some small way, inoculate the Republic against the potential for totalitarianism and help its citizens, together, “pass into safety?”



  1. Deborah Dombrowski

    I like this essay, Wendy–and have been thinking along these lines, too. How the false “connection”of the internet actually drives out and replaces the real-time connections so critical to our happiness, and our ability to build a sustainable community. 

  2. Anna Bartel

    This is beautiful and important, Wendy, and I thank you for it. I find your observations nicely aligned with the “relationship-process-results” triangle, which posits that results are achieved through relationship AND process, not process alone. There is so much more we can do to honor the wholeness of people. I am appreciating Art of Hosting practices as well as Courage and Renewal work lately…are there other paradigms you’d recommend for guidance on the practices of inclusion and honoring?

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