Recent statistics are shocking. One in five Canadians will suffer mental health problems in any given year. A growing proportion of people are suffering from depression, anxiety and chronic loneliness. The human and economic consequences are staggering.
Western culture celebrates those who pursue their personal destiny with vigor. We venerate the “self-made man.” Our forebears regale us with stories of rugged individualism and self-reliance. We measure our worth by our ability to get things done on our own. Asking for help is an admission of weakness.
Technology that claims to bind us together is proliferating at an ever-increasing rate. More and more, we view each other through the patina of social media. We curate the image we project to the world out of a need to keep up with everyone else who is doing the same thing. Our efforts to measure up have us forever failing to measure up.
People are filling the void left by a lack of human connection with consumerism. The constant pursuit of material wealth is distancing us from what makes us human. People are becoming individual units of economic production and consumption. We’re told to compete against each other instead of working for mutual gain. We slavishly take part in this zero sum game because we don’t see an alternative.
People no longer rely on each other for their survival. Affluence allows people to make more individualistic choices about their lives. Increased individualism naturally decreases the need to work towards a common good. Accumulating wealth takes time, which leaves less time for community. Relentlessly pursuing financial independence can increase social isolation.
Research is bearing out the devastating impact of social isolation and loneliness. Experiments suggest that social mammals will choose physical pain over social isolation. Human beings are social mammals. Studies have shown that a lack of social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. A five-year study at the University of Chicago showed that loneliness is an excellent predictor of depression.
Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs is clear. Our survival depends on having our physiological and safety needs met. Our next fundamental need is to love and belong. Human beings have an intense need to give love and be loved. Strong social bonds have ensured our survival as a species. We allow them to disintegrate at our peril.
Life can seem impossibly complicated. Struggle is part of the human condition. It always has been. You’d never know it when looking at most people’s social media personas. People intentionally choose the parts of their life to show to the world. This superficial facade casts a shadow on the battles we face. We hide a fundamental aspect of our humanity from one another. Our authentic humanity is what binds us together.
I’ve lived the consequences of trying to maintain the facade of perfection. I was an up and coming professional. I had my dream job. I was flying around the world in business class. I had a beautiful wife, two daughters and a house with a pool. I was the master of my destiny. Until mental illness almost destroyed everything.
Six years later my wife was dead by her own hand. I had said and done things I never imagined I would do. I experienced how pervasive and frightening darkness can be. I had to tell my young daughters their mother was dead. The experience left me traumatized in ways I refused to acknowledge.
Above all else, I needed to appear fine. I wanted people to see me as heroic because I needed to see myself as heroic. Heroic meant fearless, decisive, logical and unstoppable. Living those characteristics would guarantee a life of achievement and material wealth. My version of heroism was the only one I would consider.
It was a lie and by telling it, I made myself alone. My fear of failure and the judgment of others isolated me. I never let people know the real me. I didn’t let myself know the real me. I lived in fear of people finding out the truth. I was hurting. I was suffering. I was afraid. I’d made huge mistakes and done things I deeply regretted. Even when surrounded by people, I was alone.
The drugs and alcohol I abused were not a chemical dependency. They were an adaptation to my experiences and my loneliness. When I finally started telling the truth, I realized people loved the real me. When I finally found the courage to be honest, I realized I never had to be alone. I found I no longer needed the drugs and alcohol. Human connection cured me
It’s in our real stories that people hear the echoes of their own. Your willingness to tell it creates a safe place for people to tell theirs. It’s in that place where human connection can flourish. We all want others to love and accept us, for who we are, not who we pretend to be. The gift of safety and human connection is a gift that you have to give. You can choose to give it right now.
When you sense that someone might be struggling, don’t look the other way. Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is feeling. Compassion is doing something about it. Look them in the eye and say, “I’ve struggled too. If you ever want to talk, I want you to know that I will not judge you.” That simple gesture of human connectedness is priceless.
When I realized how important human connection is, I felt compelled to take action. I had uncovered a secret that had been hidden in plain sight. I created an online community called Mental Health Warriors. We’ve established that social media can be divisive and isolating. Yet, when used with noble intent it can connect people in ways that have never been possible before. There is safety that comes from being behind a keyboard that can mitigate people’s fears.
What’s happening is breathtaking. Men from around the world are forming relationships with one another. These men would have never had the chance to meet otherwise. They are revealing things they’ve never told anyone because they believe it’s safe to do so. When they do, their peers meet them with nothing but love and support. They are talking on the phone with one another when they’re in need. They know they have a band of brothers they can rely on. Finally. The human connection they feel is changing their lives for the better. They’ll never be the same again.
They are casting aside the yoke of shame. They are using their experiences, to make others feel less alone. The source of isolation has become the foundation of connection. Their stories are changing from “My struggles make me unworthy” to “My struggles make me human.” What a transformative and liberating change in perspective.
We are not stronger alone. We never have been. We are our strongest when people who care about us surround us. Knowing people need us gives our life purpose. A human connection only takes two people. Initiating it only takes one. Allow yourself to feel empathy and show compassion. Share more of your story in the service of others and let others flock to the safe space you create. Help others see realize your power by acknowledging and using yours. Be the one who goes first.