“The most terrible poverty is loneliness.” — Mother Teresa
Wherever you are as you read these words, pause for a moment. Are you in your neighborhood coffeehouse, bar or even passing time with a friend? Take a glance around. How many of those around you are engulfed in their phones, tablets or laptops?
According to Google, there are currently 2.8 billion people online — 39 percent of the entire human population. By 2020, the number of people with access to the internet will rise to a staggering 8 billion. In a historically unprecedented hyperconnected age, information, commerce and the promise of intimacy lie at the tip of our fingertips — yet despite the lure of instant connection, many Ashevilleans find themselves feeling more disconnected than ever, seeking to fill a void that the ubiquitous phosphorescent glow simply cannot touch.
In the digital era, human connection is only a click away. Yet connection does not necessarily equate with intimacy. Elliot (who prefers not to use his real name) says, “The days of borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor are long gone. The world we live in today promotes survival of the fittest. We’re opposed to saying hello in a parking lot, waving at our neighbors or starting a conversation to keep from staring ahead in line at the grocery store.”
It was this very sense of isolation that inspired Elliot to try his hand at internet dating, joining the reportedly 15 percent of American adults who have used online dating sites or apps, a threefold increase since 2013. “I truly believe that most people feel a sense of isolation and loneliness,” he says. “We’ve become internet hermits […] living through social media.”
Paradoxically, Elliot says that the very medium that contributed to his isolation has also opened up doors. “It’s allowed me to access a larger portion of the population, tearing down walls that society created [for me].”
When used intentionally, Elliot says, technology offers the possibility of bridging the very divide that it so often perpetuates. “[Using online dating], you’re drilling down the choices [with] the algorithms,” he says. “It gives you a chance to be more selective and cautious, or to take chances on people you previously wouldn’t have given the time of day.”
Alone in a (virtual) crowd
Without intention, however, what is the cost of perpetual virtual connection? Social worker Jackie O’Neil attests to the apparent inability of many young people to develop authentic relationships in an era in which the lure of a screen seems almost hypnotically seductive.
A practitioner within the field of addictions recovery, O’Neil regularly counsels young adults who, she says, seem to maintain more intimate relationships with their iPhones than with their peers. As part of O’Neill’s treatment regimen at The Willows at Red Oak Recovery, clients are restricted from using electronic devices, which O’Neil says they find “refreshing.” At the heart of addiction, O’Neil says, is the unfulfilled longing for authentic relationship — a longing her clients seek to fill through drugs, alcohol, sex, food and even video games.
Teaching how to build authentic relationships “is really at the heart of my work,” O’Neil says, “because I feel like that’s at the heart of suffering, and the reason why people turn to substances or unhealthy relationships or eating disorders or whatever it is. It’s a way to numb the loneliness, this feeling of ‘I’m by myself in the world.’ Through connection and intimacy and vulnerability, that’s where the heart of the healing is — through [the realization] ‘I’m not alone — someone else has experienced this.’ It’s the magic of group therapy — someone else sees me, someone else knows how I feel.”
In spite of technology’s emergence into virtually every aspect of modern human relationship, many individuals have forgone digital connection for in-person intimacy. Jack, 80, who prefers not to use his last name, says, “What we want, we fear the most.” Single for the past 30 years after two long-term marriages, Jack describes a growing realization that his needs for physical and emotional contact were unmet. Aware of his need for connection, several years ago, Jack sought community via a Cuddle Party, a gathering of individuals dedicated to sharing the healing power of consensual and platonic touch.
Jack’s initial experience, however, further illuminated the internal self-judgments that he now feels contributed to his sense of isolation. “I stayed for the introduction to the orientation and then I left, because I just felt I won the prize for the oldest in the group. I was projecting that I would not fit in and that I would be unwelcome.”
A Healing Touch
More recently, Jack became aware of Asheville’s Snuggle Sanctuary, the brainchild of shamanic craniosacral practitioner and Inner Beacon life coach Iona Jones. Welcomed wholeheartedly by the community, Jack now credits his Snuggle Sanctuary experience with an increased sense of well-being and the amelioration of the chronic loneliness he had previously experienced. Integral to this shift in his experience, he says, was the “welcoming warmth” of the community — to put it simply, “the acceptance.”
Jack’s search for deeper and more fulfilling connection is not unique — indeed, it is indicative of an epidemic of isolation that led Jones to create Snuggle Sanctuary. A relative newcomer to Asheville — having most recently resided in Big Sur, Calif., — Jones views loneliness largely within a cultural context. Within American society, Jones says, physical touch has been largely relegated to the realm of sexual interaction, engendering a society of individuals starved for authentic connection yet unsure of how to fulfill that need outside the realm of romantic relationship.
“We’re not platonically affectionate with each other past childhood,” Jones says. “Often, once a kid is older than puberty, touch becomes completely isolated from the realm of social interaction, and it’s only within a sexual context [that it is experienced.]”
Jones further elaborates on the very real and measurable physical benefits of touch: “Touch is such an important component to feeling connected — even down to a chemical level, the chemistry of oxytocin in your system is essential for your health, your nervous system and your heart,” she says. “It’s the happy hormone, and it’s released by touch.”
In line with what Jones says, recent research at the University of Chicago suggests that loneliness is as dangerous to physical health as obesity, increasing the risk of early death (and a plethora of ailments) by up to 45 percent.
Daniel Barber, another Snuggle Sanctuary participant, echoes Jones’ sentiments. “Growing up, my home life didn’t include much in the way of physical affection — a noggin rub, a pat on the back, a quick hug — those were about the only options,” he says. Barber credits his experience in Snuggle Sanctuary with an increased sense of connection and confidence in communicating his needs. “We learned about and practiced things like consent, the importance of verbally saying ‘no’ or ‘yes,’ the value of asking for what we want, and that it is always OK to change our minds at any time.”
Indeed, consent and the exploration of boundaries are critical components of Jones’ work and a hallmark of the Snuggle Sanctuary experience. Particularly for participants who have previously experienced trauma or a violation of boundaries, the experience of giving and receiving with clear intent can be nothing less than transformative, says Jones.
Poignantly, she shares her own experience, the inspiration for her present-day work. “When I went to my first cuddle party, I was so resistant. I don’t want strangers touching me. We were going over the 11 agreements — one of the agreements is to ask for what you want, and I had so much shame around asking for what I wanted,” says Jones.
“I wanted somebody to rub my feet, and I was afraid that I would have to reciprocate or they would feel obligated to oblige. But by simply challenging myself to just ask for it, I found someone who wanted to rub my feet. The fact that it was a man that I was interacting with was really healing for me — to allow myself to surrender to the simple touch of somebody rubbing my feet without having to stay on guard or alert or wonder, ‘Is he going to want to take this further?’ I didn’t have any of that because of the container that was created. I trusted and was able to really relax into the experience of receiving a foot rub — that was profound for me.”
Barber also speaks to the transformative experience of simple human contact. “There is something medicinal about these kinds of honest connections,” he says. “When they are too infrequent, the result seems to be loneliness, despair and an increasing level of desperation and anxiety about future interactions.”
What, then, is the antidote to loneliness, that pervasive burden of the modern human experience?
Recounting a story told to him by a friend who had volunteered with the Peace Corps, Jack says, “The people were asking her about her life here in the States — and these people were in poverty — and she mentioned that she lived 500 miles away from her family. She said that the people just looked at her with compassion mixed with horror; they saw she was impoverished because of that. I remember watching a documentary about Mother Teresa, and the shot was of an elderly woman walking alone down a busy sidewalk.”
Visibly touched by the memory, Jack says, “Mother Teresa was saying that you don’t have to do God’s work on her terms — you don’t have to take care of the dying or the destitute. Just recognize that there are people in your life who are bereft of human contact. That stuck with me.”