Dr. Murthy seems like a very nice man. One can hold no doubt that he has done much good in his life. But his book is an atrocity. And, with the interest of his fellow-Americans and indeed all the Western world in mind, one is here to tell you how and why.
His pitch is simple enough We have lost precious things “in this transition to modern culture”. As we rush to grow personal wealth and achievement and while we linger online with our social media toys, we fail truly to connect with people and thus impoverish our souls. Loneliness is shortening the lives of millions of Americans; we are being murdered by modernity and inter alia the toxic masculinity which it inspires. Money and consumerism do not bring happiness; that is something which comes only from others and the emotions we offer and share with them. So, let’s get it out there. How can you write a book about mental health in the USA without acknowledging that the county’s health insurance system puts care out of the reach of millions and actively institutionalizes anxiety?
How can you reference schoolyard shootings – with the lifelong torment such violence can provoke amongst survivors – and fail to mention (never mind criticize) the absence of gun control?
How can you elevate faith-families and faith-associations when so many cults openly trash the personal freedom to be, say, gay and/or marry whomsoever you wish? (The hardly tolerant Hutterites, don’t you know, “have significantly lower rates of loneliness than other communities”).
How can you be aware of the completely measurable incidence of vicious, sociopathic behaviour on our streets or the lives ruined by the prowl of narcotics tradespeople or sex traffickers and urge your co-citizens to talk freely to strangers (since “the truth is that most people we encounter are no more dangerous than we are”)?
How can you review the recent history of internal migration in China and talk about the ways, both voluntarist and commercial, in with psychological dislocation can be overcome but not talk about the gruesome disregard for human (specially Uighur) life) that is the official policy of the CPC? Is no authority ever to be offended?
Yes, all you need is love. Be more loving and the neo-Nazi in your midst drops white supremacy like an old blackshirt; the estranged family embraces again; the prosperous American perceives how strong are the bonds of families surviving the most excruciating poverty that the barely existing Ethiopian economy can throw at them; the knowledge that “we crave the interconnectedness (sic) that our ancestors (sic) depended upon” becomes easy wisdom; no pathology will go unalleviated while there is talking, listening, sharing.
By page 95, I wanted to die.
And when VHM started invoking the analysis known as Putnam’s Bowling Alone, I came down hard against any thought of reincarnation. For so much of the story here is not so much about the scourge that it is loneliness – it is about the scourge that is life. Of course, we lose friends as we grow older. Of course, the fresher year in big-city college is tough for the provincial post-pubescent. Of course, making friends in competitive career venues can be vexed. But all societies prosper when individuals deal with transition, pursue some form of higgledy-piggledy value in their lives and, crudely, just get on with it.
At its worst, Together is a gushing sugar-rush of simpering sentimentality. And it goes peak-Putnam when the author – quoting no authority (because there is not one) – feels bold enough to write that “in colonial times, American communities were built around the village green, where children played and everyone got to know one another”. When nostalgia gets this malignant, all grip on true history is lost. If you keep desperately wanting to list the things being lost in the fire you will not notice that the fire has gone out.
Other things. In spite of what Dr. Murthy says here, nothing definitive can be learned or inferred from either globally collated or often national gathered figures addressing the incidence of suicide. International comparisons are completely unreliable and a principal reason for this is interference from religious and political authorities, many of whom do not want to parade the depth of the depressions that their social order can stimulate. (In some countries, suicide does not seem to exist at all and the urban myth that the incidence is highest in Scandinavia is exactly that). And some faiths, by the way, actually forbid dancing, a therapeutism exalted by VHM but, strange that he does not mention, not therefore available to all.
And can we be careful not to admire social science experiments which tinker and fiddle with the emotions of the subjects? It is a practice which has too often gone under-supervised. There is an experiment quoted here which gives the guinea-pigs a “fake personality test that purportedly predicted their future” followed by, once the phony results were revealed, an (of all things) IQ test. This smacks of the most ghastly manipulation, the kind of social science in which we would all (?) discourage any junior relative from participating. But since the reported outcome nourishes the narrative here it is favourably referenced. This is not good karma.
VHM is right about one thing. Loneliness can be gruesome to endure. But we do not make it disappear by being nice to everyone we meet and letting them fill each encounter with their feelings, not all of which will be valuable either to themselves or others. Sometimes you defeat loneliness not by disclosure nor by touch nor by forgiving-and-forgetting but by acting like an adult and by, as Bill Clinton says, showing up and hanging on. Regression is only sometimes good for the soul. And not everyone who has wronged you or who has scarred the lives of others deserves to be blessed or even heard. America is not in gridlock because politicians no longer (?) play softball together; she is not troubled because your neighbours have lost the gift of loving themselves. She has other issues.
Yeah, let’s all meditate more – rather than get a life.
A thousand times. No.