Who Are You When You’re Alone?
What social withdrawal can teach us about belonging & othering, identity fabrication, and the commodification of community
“‘In a strange room, you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.’ I am not in a strange room, but my familiar room is in a strange world, and this passage from a novel by William Faulkner haunts me.”
As an anxiously attached kid, I’ve always considered the dynamics of distance. Each stage of life reveals new angles through which to heal and rebuild healthy attachments. When I was little, the first challenge was to sustain the feeling of safety when my parents left the room. When I conquered separation anxiety, the dynamic inevitably shifted to social and intimate relationships. Even as I continued to make strides as a secure identifying adult, I plotted a profession in hospitality and community building that conveniently guaranteed my spot within the social fabric I needed to feel safe.
We all make sense of ourselves through our bonds with others, but for those of us who struggle with attachment, we inherently tailor our personality to ensure that we can secure the bonds that fill our most basic needs. If closeness is a kind of addiction, then distance is the ultimate state of vulnerability. When all the layers we’ve skillfully designed to create a veil of safety dissolve before our eyes — when we empty ourselves for sleep — what are we?
The inverse relationship between religious affiliation and nomadic living within the network economy has created a clear demand for reimagined communities. But as problematic as we consider many traditional religious-based congregations to be, the truth is that everyone worships something. It may not be god as we know it, but many new age communities and subcultures inevitably bow down to consumerist ideals, colonial tendencies, the false promises of the hustle mentality and white washed spiritual pursuit. We expend most of our energy on constructing an Instagram verified identity and use the surplus to keep all of its pieces in place, but for what? When communities are designed by marketers, you can be so easily tricked into believing that we have complete agency under a camouflaged herd mentality. Even with an ounce of awareness, transcending an assumed frame of thought is a threat to our self-concept. Unsubscribing from the rules and rituals that uphold our esteemed values is terrifying. It means we can’t depend on others for our own security. That’s one insight that isolation really drives home.
Human connection is undeniably a vitamin we all need to thrive, but it’s also evident that distance from any given relationship or community is needed to regain clarity and realign the parts of ourselves that we sacrifice in order to hold our identity constructs in place. As an alternative to French philosopher Roland Barthes, who dreamed of a simple life based around living and sharing ideas with a small group of like-minded individuals, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche “turns his back on an entire tradition of thinking about community that prized a shared history, myths of origin and common rituals.” In other words, he believed that relationships shouldn’t be so attached to what they have in common, as the level of projection leaves little room to identify our shared shortcomings. Instead, he finds it necessary to seek connections with those who are different in order to expand beyond ourselves.
As someone who has preached the mountain-top utopian community as Barthes imagined it for years (one that is very near and dear to my heart), I’ve created enough distance to even consider Nietzsche’s critique, which reveals an important paradox in that the defining feature of such a community is drawing a line around those who belong and those who do not.
Nietzsche explores identity within community through the “pathos of distance,” which refers to the root of all value systems that distinguishes between the elite and the plebeian. He argues that the social production of identity incorporates a principle of exclusion, which suggests that striving for perfection cannot proceed without the sacrifice, oppression or exploitation of the “other”. According to Nietzsche, these rank-defining value judgments create a creditor / debtor dynamic, where the relationship between self and other is dictated by the will for power: “by language as an expression of power, and by the use of concepts to measure, interpret, and draw distinctions” between those who are worthy and those who are not. The community or subculture becomes the creditor, while our responsibility becomes to uphold the social contract in order to gain the benefits of belonging. The problem lies in that the debtor, who determines the standard for what is “good,” is often sought and established in the wrong place, as in the judgement of “good” often does not originate with those to whom “goodness” was shown.
The pathos of distance that exists in society both reflects and feeds the pathos of distance that exists within us. When we’re trained to uphold a criteria for what makes people “worthy” of entry, we inevitably turn those standards around to deny parts of ourselves. What we create is a tyrant inside each of us that filters others as “less than” or “greater than” based on our social criteria. The irony is that the saddest victim of this tyrant is the tyrant himself — “the violence you mete out is always the mirror of the violence you inflict on yourself. The violence you inflict on your self is always the mirror of the violence you mete out.” This is what French sociologist Jean Baudrillard described as the intelligence of evil.
From a mechanical perspective, Nietzsche viewed the self as comprised of the soul (pure consciousness) and the body — the vessel that compares and creates through the ego. The body sees itself as a “work of art” resting on a process of self-fabrication that requires that we view ourselves from a distance in an image outside of ourselves. Nietzsche uses the analogy of the artist and the artwork, again drawing on the concept of distance to acknowledge how we temporalize the body, running away from concepts of self in the past and fantasizing what the self is to become in the future. The truth is that the self is never outside of itself; who we are is what we are in this exact moment.
Keep in mind, Nietzsche speak to us from the late 1800s, far before social media spiraled the concept of self-fabrication to a whole new realm. Our identities are not only public but on display in a kind of identity marketplace leveraged for social and economic evaluation. It exists entirely outside of ourselves. It exists even after we die.
Belonging to a new age community then, just like the things we wear to the places we go and the people we go with, is another form of social currency. And so we live in pursuit of that credit — dropping everything we have to take the “cool” job that finds it cheaper to offer lifestyle benefits than to pay livable wages. We work long nights with no overtime because we’re sold into a vision that we believe and take pride in, only to realize that when relationships, community and identity are commodified, the bottom line will always come first.
It’s no anomaly why we fetishize the cult, because living undefined is like living in debt. It’s easier to create an identity when you’re given a handbook. What we breed then, is cult of personalities, people like Trump, Bikram, or even Jessica Koslow, who are so artful with their identity design that they get away with impeachable offenses, yoga teacher trainings ridden with sex crimes, and businesses built on moldy jams made in illegal kitchens. They work so hard on their public personas until the day they are #cancelled — suddenly cut off from the creditor’s life line as if we’re shocked that these social avatars we idolize aren’t as perfect as they appear. We’re so vested in our public personas that we don’t even need a real human form to back it up — take Lil Miquela, for example, a Brazillian-American model, musician, and influencer with over 2.5 million followers. The catch: she’s not real.
As much as I wish I could run away to the top of the mountain and forever frolic in a field of poppies, there’s an undeniable power in living in proximity to what is real, even when reality is hard. To build diverse, multi-racial, inter-generational relationships that Nietzsche encouraged, agreeing to confront our limitations, understand the impact that our decisions have on others, and the power we have to both promote and deny justice.
Deciding how to help without listening to those we struggle to serve gets to the core of the pathos of distance. We become so far removed in our own fantasy that life can feel so surreal, because it is. But without becoming a cynic, it seems like part of growing up is moving beyond the imagined and deciding to invest in what is real.