“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” Gustavo Gutiérrez, The Power of the Poor in History
Nothing is more expensive than being poor. Those who engage in social medicine and social justice scholarship know this to be true. For many of us who grew up in those impoverished settings written about in journals, it is a lived experience that has made us crusaders for change. Perhaps what we know most deeply is that poverty is a choice. It is not a choice of the impoverished but a choice made and perpetuated by a capitalist society interested in our bodies for as long as they can perform “essential services.”
We all deserve to be seen as a whole, and media has the potential to lift marginalized groups out of obscurity. I think about how LGBTQ+ storytelling has shifted on screen in the last three decades and recognize the need for stories that humanize the dehumanized (i.e., BIPOC, the queer, the disabled, the mentally ill).
People talk about loneliness, and, for some reason, they both acknowledge that it is a problem while scoffing at it for it being some sort of fluffy action item. “Why should I care about loneliness in America, especially in the city, when there are so many other issues to explore, dissect, and highlight?” Loneliness matters because it profoundly impacts the poor, infecting their lives at every level: socially, physically, financially, psychologically, politically.
My being in Boston is an anomaly. A poor Southern girl like me should be married with two children, waiting tables fifty hours a week without health insurance, selling LuLaRoe on the side to pay for a yearly five-day unpaid vacation to somewhere sunny but close, my allotted luxury. A shift in my destiny carried a price tag of $75,000; a price then doubled by interest. If one good thing came from the pandemic, it is that I was finally able to pay down my other lifesaving debts and finally start to save. Student loans are designed to keep you desperate by either discouraging you from going to school or hustling hard as a compliant worker to pay them down.
When I moved to Boston in 2017, I knew one person: a friend who had also escaped her hometown destiny. Even though she’d lived in the city for two years, she didn’t have a PCP, had never had a pap smear, and didn’t even have all of her vaccinations because her mother had a deep distrust of doctors that my friend could not afford to get when she finally moved away. I wasn’t much better. I hadn’t gone to the doctor since high school graduation. I didn’t know anything about 401k or retirement or insurance plans or anything, really. Even after coming to Harvard, I was too embarrassed and overwhelmed to learn how to use my health insurance for three years. Here I was in a new city with my best friend, a lonely fool.
That winter, I moved into a communal house, and, not to be cliché, it changed my life. For the first time, I had a real, intentional connection with people who had grown up wealthier and more well-connected than I had. My housemates told me how to use my insurance to assign a PCP, gave me recommendations for dental surgeons and optometrists (after all, I finally had insurance), how to set up my retirement fund, where to go to meet more artists my age, how to use a credit card, how to eat better and enjoy exercise. In six months, my depression dulled to an ache, my sobbing spirals diminished to once every three weeks instead of every day, and I knew how to use the MBTA without a map.
It wasn’t that a lifetime of poverty and isolation had been knocked out overnight, but there was something to the whole living with other people thing that made sense.
Humans are primates, which means that we are wired to connect. On a physiological level, when we feel like we belong to a community and when our social needs are met, we are at ease. When we are out of place and isolated, our body responds with hearty hypervigilance (Murthy, 35). Yet, even though we react poorly to loneliness, “the values that dominate modern culture instead elevate the narrative of the rugged individualist and the pursuit of self-determination” (Murthy, xxi). In short, admitting to loneliness feels like a failure of the American Dream.
Loneliness is not a luxurious issue that wants rich white people to sit around with hand drums to feel better about themselves. Loneliness is the result of capitalism. Loneliness results from decades of whittling down the family unit by labeling intergenerational living as a failure. Loneliness is the result of Western exceptionalism. Like poverty, loneliness is not politically neutral.
Fighting back against loneliness addresses mental health and political action by empowering the lonely by creating real, meaningful networks that are not just for “professional development.” This is a movement of empathy, one in which that reminds the individual that it is both physically and psychologically safer to be in a community.
As I’ve stated before, I want to examine the “loneliness epidemic,” its impact on mental and physical health in Gen Y and Gen Z (people aged 12-34), and how therapeutic writing and intentional creative communities can act as “loneliness interventions.” To accomplish this, I want to pull from studies on the impact of loneliness and social isolation on health, collaborate with existing programs like the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and explore the loneliness epidemic with experts like Julia Marcus.
It is my hope that my new master’s program will give me the space and the expertise in social medicine, social justice, and storytelling to help me finetune my messaging around loneliness and best learn how to impact those who need community and togetherness most.
Murthy, Vivek. Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Harper Wave, 2020.