top of page
  • cwsbrennan

When being lonely is required by the State! And why are we so vulnerable anyway?

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

'Being Lonely...Making sense of Australia's epidemic of social and ecological disconnection'.

A research report written by Richard Hil, Louise Holdsworth & Charlie Brennan

May 2020 Ngara Institute & Resilient Byron

This is my first blog. Fittingly, it cuts right to the chase, to isolation, disconnection, exclusion, disintegration of people from each other and from nature. In late 2019 we set about a research and writing project to better appreciate, understand and make recommendations in relation to peoples' felt experiences of loneliness in Australia.

Epidemic of loneliness

This epidemic of loneliness built and built as we wrote. In Australia we watched nightly TV news as terrible heatwaves became unprecedented bushfires that devastated landscapes, economies and peoples' lives.

Then an already deteriorating economy (plummeting interest rates, deteriorating distribution of housing, wealth & income, the gig economy, no real government blueprint for sustainable green economics (i.e. that take into account our children & ecological reality...)) was followed by Covid19 virus and all that has come with it. I think many people have yet to really 'get their heads around' what is currently happening.

And then there was Coronavirus

Now in September 2020 international flights and borders are closed. State borders are closed. So many people cut off from community, friends, relatives, sons and daughters, grandparents and parents - partners even. And all this is mandated by the state!! If you thought loneliness was a problem before...!

Peoples experiences of loneliness and sense of disconnection are often excruciatingly painful. There's no easy way to lighten such an experience. And there can be no doubt that Covid19 policies have fundamentally exacerbated peoples' sense of disconnection and loneliness.

See this recent Sydney Morning Herald article 'The world's greatest psychological experiment: When the Loneliness epidemic met Coronavirus pandemic'.

Social research as bearing witness

It is important to stay with this. To pause and not hurry past all this to 'answers' (far too easily handed down), to move to more comfortable experiences (what me?)...

An important role of such social research is acknowledgement. In this case it is the acknowledgement of very real experiences of pain, trauma and of the costs to people, families, communities and economies. Research can go some way to un-silence these experiences and voices and make the invisible more opaque. Real life stories can be heard and offered some value. Ultimately research and researchers can reach out to connect in a meaningful way.

Researchers vulnerability & social suffering

For some valuable insights into social research see for instance Ruth Behar's stunning, moving work in 'The Vulnerable Observer - Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart' (1999).

Or Bourdeau et al, 'Weight of the World; Social Suffering in Contemporary Society' (1999). Bourdieu and the team of researchers explored and questioned the conduct of this kind of research - its reflexivity. How do researchers not reinforce social disadvantage?

For a more contemporary work see the incomparable

Sarah Krasnostein's 'The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay & Disaster' (2018).

Research insights

Below are some broader insights that have become clearer (they have come to the surface since being fully immersed in the research, writing & editing process) to me since we wrote this:

- These times of unpredictable changes are fragmenting so many things. This fragmentation of life experiences can be felt to be negative but can also positive for some people. Rapid change can open opportunities for some and break arrangements for others. No few people have stopped commuting, spend more time with their families and gardens. Maybe they now know how to bake bread.

- That the aim of this kind of research, focussing on such painful disconnection, is, as stated above, to bear witness and value people and their experiences not matter how painful. It is also to better understand connection and how to create it and enjoy it. Through exploring disconnection our intention has been to create connection.

- Loneliness and disconnection seem to have less to do with lack of actual connection to other people specifically, but are more about life fundamentally lacking meaning, purpose, identity, belonging and.... meaningful relationships. Implicated in this are many factors including the level of social capital (choices, opportunities, network and resources) potentially available to any person, family, community...

- A conventional approach sees loneliness as a problem situated in the person suffering. A systemic approach might see the pain of disconnection is being appropriate feelings to have in response to people and communities having been rendered disconnected. Anguish and anxiety are experienced because aspects of a healthy life are missing/have been taken away.

- Loneliness, alternately, can also be rather an illusion. Almost all spiritual traditions ask us to face into personal fragility, traumas and demons. To deal with adolescent-like felt separatenesses from the collective.

- Our greatest loss, however, in the western world is our psychological 'cut' from Nature / from the rest of life. The original human loneliness is ecopsychological. Environmental philosophers told us a long time ago that the root of the problem is the Cartesian division. Western conceptions of the other-than-human world are often psychopathic; places, ecologies and beings are largely emptied of rights, symbolism, life, recognition, story and purpose. Inconceivable really....

See for instance, the works of -

James Hillman (1995) 'Psyche the Size of the Earth'

Val Plumwood (1993), 'The Mastery of Nature'

Simon Schama (1996), 'Landscape & Memory'

Ivan Illich (2005), 'H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness'

Neil Evernden (1992) 'The Social Creation of Nature'

But more on this another time, another blog, or workshop.......

- The last word here goes to Poe Dameron talking to Zoria Bliss in JJ Abrams, Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.

'The First Order used fear and loneliness to win'. 'The First Order wins by making us think we’re alone. We’re not'.


Preface to the Report. Full Report Link Below

'Being Lonely...Making sense of Australia's epidemic of social and ecological disconnection'.

A research report written by Richard Hil, Louise Holdsworth & Charlie Brennan

May 2020 Ngara Institute & Resilient Byron

Preface: Lockdown We wrote the main body of this essay over the Australian summer of 2019/2020. Fast forward just a few short months and the world is, in many respects, unrecognisable and the Australian summer of 2019/20 was already traumatic enough. Months of record-breaking heat with little or no rainfall led to a dry spring, which ushered in severe drought and compounding heatwaves. Repeated warnings of unprecedented wildfires went largely unheeded, and then became reality.

Each night we watched TV footage of landscapes, ecosystems, towns and communities being ravaged. People withdrew indoors away from the heat and smoke, ready for the real possibility that they might need to evacuate to escape the encroaching flames. Nowhere felt safe. Occasionally, the power would fail, or people couldn’t afford to cool their homes. There are accounts of some going hungry rather than heading outdoors to get food, out into the heat, smoke and imminent danger. Others moved between air-conditioned spaces – from house, to car, to shopping centre and back again. Pushed to the limit, some people became traumatised, suffering emotional breakdowns, unable to cope. The tension was palpable. The world watched, utterly aghast, as the inferno crept across Australia, eventually burning over 18 million hectares of land, destroying homes, lives and livelihoods. After the fires, police and the military were mobilised in some areas to help clean up, cordon off disaster areas, and ensure law and order in areas where infrastructure and services were no longer functioning.

“This abrupt shift, the sudden arrival of a dystopian future, is hard to comprehend and even harder to act upon.”

Something had shifted in our collective sense of being, and not simply in terms of trauma and suffering. A clue to the nature of this transformation can be found in Margaret Atwood’s celebrated novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). In what is a complex and disturbing story, Attwood portrays how an authoritarian state intrudes into the most intimate parts of human relationships, obliterating the boundaries between the public and private. There’s a scene in the 2017 TV adaptation in which a street protest is violently closed down. As conflictintensifies, the story’s main character, June Osborne, takes cover under a table in a café. Petrified, she witnesses the moment when daily habitual routines, that have already been disintegrating, are replaced by the sudden, crushing arrival of a previously unimaginable dystopian future. Bullets fly, batons are wielded, blood flows. The everyday is no longer. The mundane vanquished. The unthinkable has morphed into a dark, new and menacing reality. We know this is possible: that the everyday can morph into the unprecedented. The almost unthinkable is already here in Australia. Over the course of a protracted lockdown, people have been confined alone in their homes, isolated from friends and family; banned by law from participating in previously normal activities and gathering in public places. Lockdowns are lifted, then reimposed. Our previously routine freedoms subject to watchful regulations. In three short months the Covid-19 virus, shaken loose from the wider biosphere, spread around the globe. Governments have enacted policies to slow its contagious spread: halting travel, closing businesses, social gatherings and many aspects of normal life. These policies were aimed at stopping medical systems from becoming totally overwhelmed and to keep society functioning at a manageable level. This abrupt shift, the sudden arrival of a dystopian future, is hard to comprehend and even harder to act upon. Writing about this new reality feels surreal and certainly confronting.

But things change – often rapidly. A few weeks into the coronavirus crisis and some people seemed relatively content with the new normal of home and garden renovations, lots of walking alone or with friends, reading and endless TV viewing. For some, this was a welcome respite after the long hot summer. People found ways to connect, forging new socially distanced communities via digital platforms. Social media and Zoom, Skype and so forth enabled virtual connection to take the edge off isolation, but these have proved a poor substitute for authentic inter- being. Others celebrated the break in the crazy busyness of modern life; it was an opportunity to rethink how we live. For others it became a time of exacerbated loneliness and disconnection, with many trapped in situations of alcohol fuelled domestic violence, and of course, social distancing meant people suffering and dying away from loved ones.

In late April 2020, some restrictions were relaxed. However, bans on travel and social gatherings, and mass unemployment and unprecedented government payments to keep the economy from collapsing are underlying realities. From this vantagepoint, any person gazing into the future felt uneasy. The promises of yesterday have lost credibility and relevance. We’ve been told repeatedly that fundamental changes to the socio- economic order were not possible - changes that would have helped us avoid ecological collapse, alleviated poverty, and helped those suffering addiction, homelessness, isolation, disconnection and exclusion.

The fact that governments across Australia are currently funding mental health services in response to the human anguish caused by prolonged isolation, is remarkable. It took a crisis of epic proportions to recognise the ubiquitous presence and seriousness of social suffering. Private and public services have sprung into action with counsellors, social workers, psychotherapists and psychologists mobilised like never before. New fora have emerged, and on an individual level there’s a greater preparedness in the face of fear, threat and isolation to express previously edited emotions, and to explore our interior worlds.

Not long ago, Naomi Klein (2007) warned us about this; fomented or taken advantage of disasters to put in place measures that advance the interests of global capital and further diminish human and environmental rights. Who would have thought that the state would, or could, so easily and rapidly mandate closing all borders, enforce social isolation and legally deny community space? How many of these rights are going to be fully restored? Who among us believes that governments will not take advantage of the COVID-19 tragedy to push their agendas? We wait, and watch. We live in fractured, fraught times that have exposed many of our previously held assumptions. Uncertainty and a stifling sense of vulnerability have made us more guarded and anxious. Our present, let along the future, appear unknowable and yet threatening. A wary anticipation has set in.

Our reactions to all this are complex. The consuming nature of the coronavirus crisis has compounded existing anxieties. Initially, shock and fear surfaced as services closed down. Vague and sweeping laws were enacted and threatened to engulf us. Some however, foresaw a new, golden, age where civility and justice could be actualised, connections strengthened, while others predicted the rise of draconian authoritarianism, building ominously alongside many other worrisome “megatrends” (Haig 2020). Australian authorities, previously reluctant to take action in the wildfire disasters, watched as the virus spread from China, to the Middle East and Europe, but this

“We’ve been told repeatedly that fundamental changes to the socio-economic order were not possible... It took a crisis of epic proportions to recognise the ubiquitous presence and seriousness of social suffering.”

Now ruling elites have time acted quickly by imposing strict lockdown measures. It seemed to work, for a while. Across the world, however, the tragedy instantised and, as we write, there is no end in sight. Economies have ground to a halt, opened up, then shut again. Millions have lost their jobs, billions are self-isolating, and new regulatory regimes installed. Some time ago, James Howard Kunstler (2005) observed that we are in a “long emergency”. Indeed, we are, with the Covid-19 pandemic the latest in a series of ongoing, intersecting crises: the nuclear crisis still looms, and pollution, biodiversity collapse and the climate crisis are building. International inequality, corporate tax avoidance, capital hyper-accumulation and the arms trade continue apace. We live with the ongoing reality of mass-scale human displacement and a compounding refugee crisis. These issues, and so many more, combine and threaten planetary systems and humanity itself. Yet when we need clarity of purpose, we face an epistemic crisis that befuddles knowledge and certainty. It undermines democracy itself. Many have lost faith in democratic institutions and no longer know what to believe in a ‘post-truth’ world.

How does all this relate to the issue at hand – loneliness? Well, if we thought that coming to grips with loneliness, isolation, disconnection and exclusion was urgent last summer, then it’s even more so now. As we ploughed through the literature on loneliness this feeling grew. Now we find ourselves in a whole new world which has shifted so suddenly and spectacularly that it’s almost impossible to grasp. Suddenly, loneliness, isolation and distancing, both physical and emotional, is the stuff of casual conversations, not a source of embarrassment and concealment. Existing in confined social spaces, and limiting our exposure to the everyday, has perhaps offered us the opportunity to reflect, to think, to be different: if only for a while. Countless others, of course, do not have this luxury, existing as they do on the edges of a ruthless, market-oriented system.

The by-products of this system: loneliness and disconnection, are the subject of the remainder of this essay. The COVID-19 lockdown has merely sharpened our collective focus.

31 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page