Monday, August 5, 2013

Social Creatures

Very few animals like to be alone.  Yes, there are exceptions. The snail for instance. But such exceptions are rare. Thus we find the "school of fish." A "pride of lions." The "height of Giraffes." A "troop of monkeys."

People too are social creatures. Few of us truly want to be alone. In fact loneness is often (but not universally) seen as a harbinger of trouble.

It is our nature to congregate -- just as it is for the gnat. We do it automatically. And that is usually so even for those of us who deny we do it at all! Why is that?

Some of the reasons -- those that are innate -- may be in truth not reasons at all. It is just what we are. But other reasons are perfectly fathomable.  For one we simply need each other. Few human beings can care for all their needs -- not even in many cases the most basic of them -- on their own.

Hungry? Where are you going to get food? Even the most basic food stuffs don't (well, with a few delightful exceptions) "grow on trees."  Even bread and water -- often seen as the most basic food stuffs -- would often be unavailable to us if we were totally alone and isolated.  Someone has to grow the wheat (or rye if your family comes from where my family comes from).  Someone needs to grind that grain into flour. Someone has to provide the yeast or other leavening. Someone has to build the oven and do the baking. Can you do all those things? I cannot.

Water we might find on our own, but will it be drinkable?

And then again we might prefer beer or wine.

Yes, we humans typically need each other just to survive.  But there is much more to life than mere survival, and for these activities social interactions are even more critical.

Human beings tend to congregate according to kind.  The very naturalness of this tendency for like to be with like is today often hidden by those who wish it otherwise, be it for good purpose or (as often), ill.

For one thing if we wish to communicate with someone by means other than pointing and grunts we need to speak the same language.  Is it really unreasonable -- or the demonstration of some terrible anti-social nature -- that immigrants to the United States look to live with others that speak their own language? Not at all!

For those of us raised in a home where we heard American English from birth it may be hard to fully appreciate the challenge faced in daily life by someone who has not. And even if that person makes the effort to venture forth into the American English speaking world on a daily basis -- for school or work -- is it not completely understandable that they would find great comfort having time with others with whom communication -- yes, and shared customs -- are automatic, unstressed and natural?

That is in part why members of the British Raj (The British ruling class in India) had "English Only" clubs -- places where they could be completely comfortable, speaking their own language, sharing their own customs. Today, of course, such an understanding is beat down - made invisible. Those "English Only" clubs are seen and said to be signs of mere prejudice and hate. Odd, is it not, how social needs -- the need to be with one's own kind -- can be respected for some, and denied and disparaged for others?

But there are other ways and reasons why humans often prefer to congregate with their own. Shared interests
is one.  "Car nuts" like to talk about cars endlessly. Knitting circles get together, at least in part, because their members like to knit. Square dancers dance. Religious persons pray. Etc. Etc.  There is absolutely nothing wrong, or even hard to understand, about any of that, is there?

Young mothers prefer to congregate with other young mothers. Partly that is to share knowledge, but only partly.

If little Kyle is up all night with an ear ache his mother may know perfectly well what needs to be done for him. But her non-parent workmates may have no understanding at all -- not even a glimmering! -- of what she went through the night before, nor why it is she is struggling so through that next day while at the office.  Is it a wonder that young mothers want to be with others who share their daily trials?

Other people come to consider themselves "loners."  And some may actually be such, social needs, like everything else in nature, falling within a range with a few as statistical "outliers." But more often "loneness" is simply a sign that a person has not yet found others of their 'kind' -- others who share their interests and proclivities.  If a child experiences that type of loneness -- and the resulting lonliness -- then they will either come to see themselves as defective ("what is wrong with me?") or, as likely, take a defensive posture ("There is nothing wrong with me! What's wrong with you?")

Frankly I was such a child. Lost in my own little world. Quite content there, but certainly odd appearing to others.

My mom, years later, related to me a story of once, when I was still a toddler, leaving me with a neighbor. She said she had dropped me off on the neighbor's little 'stoop', calling in "I'm leaving Donny!"  Then, quite some time later, when she returned, she found that the neighbor had either not heard her or forgotten - but there I was, quite content on the 'stoop,' examining a leaf, a caterpillar or some such.

To my mom's grief the neighbor, after that, started spreading the story that little Donny, who never wondered off, must be "retarded." I suppose the final evidence on that is yet to fully come in. But in my case that became meaningless with the passing of time. For once I discovered where my interests actually lie -- in the arts, literature and the world of ideas -- and once I found a friend, and then later friends, who shared those interests -- I started 'wondering off' aplenty.

We might think that loneliness is a particular problem in small towns and communities. Oddly cities can add to people's loneness (and loneliness) far more than small towns.

In a small community only the true outliers are left without a sense of belonging. But in cities, where the bustling throng have to each recede into themselves to preserve even a smattering of self, many can be and are left to feel the emptiness of loneness. We can sometimes help here by displaying a touch of empathy and understanding, drawing such out, looking for common ground and common interests.

But perhaps the greatest hope for 'loners' who do not really want to be alone is the internet. For here communities of shared interest can be found, and the feeling of "belonging" that comes with such, for almost anyone with any -- even the most obscure -- of interests.

Yes, humans are social animals. As such we can reach the "height of Giraffes" and maybe even have the "pride of lions."  Or, in many cases, we can just allow ourselves to be what we comfortably are - a "gaggle of geese."

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