In 1845 Henry David Thoreau was told by a fellow writer to “Go…build yourself a hut,” and live a solitary life in the woods. Walden; or, Life in the Woods, the chronicle of that two year period, has inspired countless others to live the introspective life—at least for a time. Others work out their beliefs in the midst of communal living. Aristotle observed that “Man is by nature a social animal,” and John Donne agreed with him when he wrote that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Human beings need other human beings. Our language, cognitive abilities, emotions and sense of self all develop from birth in relationship with those around us. When we live in isolation from others, creative ability declines and loneliness inevitably results. According to neuroscientist John Cacioppo, author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, loneliness can negatively affect our health, particularly immune and cardiovascular function—even contributing to premature aging.
Wendell Berry is a contemporary writer who touches on many of the same ideas that once occupied Thoreau. Of community Berry writes, “I believe that the community—in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”
Even though Thoreau decided to live for a while all by himself in a hut next to Walden pond, he was supported with food from family and friends—especially Ralph Waldo Emerson—and he kept chairs ready for visitors, which he claimed to have more of while alone in the woods than when he lived in the city. Thoreau needed others to sustain even his temporary solitude.
We all need relationships to sustain and support wellbeing. But as we age, the desire to remain in place—long after we become isolated in that space—is often stronger than the desire for community. Unfortunately, the one time in our modern day when we can be most isolated from relationships—in the latter stages of life, when companions die or we become infirm and less able to travel—is the time in our lives when it can be most dangerous to live alone.
Part Two of Living in Community explores some of those dangers—and looks at some of the surprising benefits for those who move from isolation back to communal living.
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