Military Sociology

The Opposite of Loneliness

Opposite of Loneliness
“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty”– Mother Teresa

If loneliness is the most terrible poverty, what does life’s richness consist of? The late Marina Keegan describes this in her book The Opposite of Loneliness. Pondering her impending graduation from Yale, she writes:

It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team… Yale is full of tiny circles we pull around ourselves. A cappella groups, sports teams, houses, societies, clubs. These tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights when we stumble home to our computers – partnerless, tired, awake.

The transition out of school scared her because it meant “losing this web we’re in.This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness.”

What is this this elusive state of “not quite love” and “not quite community”? Sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies calls this elusive state ‘concordia’, defined as a “heartfelt sense of integration and unanimity.” This sense of integration is the “family spirit” found in communal contexts where there is harmony between social roles in a larger social body. The concept comes from the Roman Goddess, Concordia who represented agreement and harmony in society – the Greek version being called Harmonia, the goddess of harmony.

For sociology, Concordia represents the ideal society – even among conflict theorists such as Marx whose utopia was the end of conflict through global communism. But this does not mean that we need a perfectly functioning society or Marx’s global communism to experience Concordia. As described by Marina Keegan, it can be found in school among micro-contexts of “tiny circles we pull around ourselves.” Beyond that, it can be found in the workplace among organizations that allow their employees a sense of effective contribution to something larger than themselves and a feeling that they are valued. Aside from the more obvious examples of socially harmonious micro-contexts, Concordia can be found alongside Mars, the god of war.

Amidst the discord of combat, highly trained soldiers pull together into harmonious and highly effective social units. One veteran I spoke with referred to this as a feeling of “balance,” stating:

“there is a certain utopia to it… everyone’s focused on the same thing… everyone’s focused on the deployment and getting the job done… there is an implicit agreement that I got your back and you’ve got mine, we know that bullets don’t discriminate, so watching each other’s back it’s an unwritten rule that binds us together….”

Another states,“… [in the military] you can bet someone is always looking out for you… you’re always accountable to one another – which is a great thing – but when you take that away it can be isolating.” In the military, concordia is produced by a strong sense of collective accountability. The military is an ideal example of harmonious in-group cohesion and the transition can produce an overwhelming feeling of being alone.

Although veterans in transition to civilian life are a key population we need to consider when looking at the loneliness produced by the loss of concordia, this model can be applied to various other transition experiences. As Marina Keegan described in The Opposite of Loneliness, the transition out of school can produce this sense of thwarted belonging. Veterans, recent graduates, individuals laid off of work, and even parents experiencing “empty nest syndrome” need to be given opportunities to find a new sense of concordia; a sense that they are needed and working in harmony with a larger whole; a sense that someone has their back; a sense of contribution to a cause outside their self; a sense of that elusive “opposite of loneliness.”

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  1. My husband and I belong to a small community of people with varied ages, ethic identities and professions – social workes, mechanics, ballet teacher, massage therapist, bus driver, factory worker, retail workers, farm hand, teachers, writers – from high school to doctorate educated – some former military and even criminal backgrounds – focused on helping and encouraging each other, with a central focus on God. There is a real sense of communial identity, but at the same time individual ability and giftedness used to help each other – standing together, but able to function individually. Several have shared that they don’t feel alone anymore. Belonging is such an important thing in a society that more and more results in isolation and loneliness.

  2. This book has been popping up a lot in my life lately. After reading your post, I looks like it’s high time I read it now. Thanks for the insights 🙂

  3. Thanks for connecting over WordPress! You write elegant incisive yet caring posts. This one intrigues me because I had this feeling on leaving college – but I also saw that I had a lot of unfinished business in my own head that my feeling of community had hidden. I wound up quitting my first job and going off to be a ski-bum for a year – getting away from the white-collar world I spent all my life in showed me who I actually was! A soldier’s transition is certainly more arduous but do you also find that tension? Most soldiers begin their military careers so young.

  4. Theater and the Arts can provide this sense of belonging on such a personal level, and often times at a deeper level than one’s own family. It’s why I act.

  5. An excellent, well-written reflection. This also reminded me of Victor Turner’s idea of “communitas” in his studies of rites of passage and pilgrimage. He saw a communal bond form among persons experiencing liminality through a rite of passage experience or while traveling as pilgrims. I wonder what the differences and similarities would be with respect to concordia.

  6. Its just amazing to me how God works. I was JUST talking to Him today about this- (not quite in these terms) but you’ve articulated them much better than I. Thank you!

  7. Since I only took one sociology class = no idea
    What would it say about a person that accepts solitude over accepting unvalued friendships?
    They would like to have association with others, but only if it is constructive and genuine.

    1. I don’t quite know how to frame that sociologically, but it for sure seems reasonable from a psychological or personal-development perspective. One thing I could say though is that being alone or living in solitude are different from being lonely.

      1. I realized after I submitted the post that it was not a fair question, or an accurate reflection of my response.
        Your post was excellent, and very understandable that enticed me to respond. I’ve always struggled with writing (being analytical) – but that’s another topic
        What I was trying to say that solitude is not always a preference or desire, only a reality for those who have not made a connection or affiliation to others that can relate to them.
        You also made a valid and important reference to the difference between solitude and loneliness.
        Well said!

  8. Hey Steve-

    Good post here, appreciate the analogy with ‘combat’ and unity.

    You have a heckava site here. Your CV is quite stellar as well. Tkx for follow, but please do not think too much of me today, for I will surely disappoint tomorrow. ;)_

  9. Thank you for writing such an good article! This fact is also true for people with mental injuries, like myself. Being unable to work, with almost no social life, means that we ourselves have to work very hard to fill every single day with meaning.

    However, now I actually have started feeling that I’m part of society, being it artificial or not, after “going public” in November and “meeting” so many nice people.

    Best regards from Tussila!

  10. Great article.
    This person hit the problem firmly on the head for ex-mil though:-

    Another states,“… [in the military] you can bet someone is always looking out for you… you’re always accountable to one another – which is a great thing – but when you take that away it can be isolating.”

    Once you get out into the mess that is civilian, one of the first things I found was there was little loyalty among workers, and up and down the chain of command.

    I used to hate in the forces the “rank hungry night crawler”.
    Promoted by who they knew not what they knew. True political animals.

    Problem is, in civilian life, this phenomenon is rife if not SOP.
    The politics of the workplace seldom rewards the hard worker, the most useful person, it often just rewards the political animal. The good and experienced workers left in situ to ensure “the figures” are kept good.

    Thus you find the most experienced often move around, unrecognized for their knowledge and expertise, unappreciated by the managers, and usually headhunted by someone who knows their worth.

    You would have thought that good for them only most just move from one mess to another.

    Honor and trust. With that comes loyalty.
    All three traits sadly lacking in the quagmire of civilian life.

  11. Interesting. I suspect that our love of social media is a side effect of us not living in extended families, the collapse of the ‘neighbourhood’ and the fact that we are all so suspicious of each other these days- a ‘forun’ or online group is a substitute for that community/ societal feeling.

    1. Jeremy Rifkin, in The Empathic Civilization, sees a long trend in human society starting with tribalism. In tribal societies, the ego boundaries are very weak, and creative thinking is suppressed. In the technological age, we have attained independence from those constraints, and many flirt with narcissism. We seek happiness, and don’t always need others to achieve it. Rifkin holds out the hope that the world wide web represents the means for a society of iconoclasts to reform their tribes – but with people that they choose, rather than those they inherit. It is from the comfort of that fellow feeling that we can develop the skills to express empathy, and ultimately broaden our concern to the entire world and all the life in it.

    2. I think we are so suspicious of each other; because there is nothing to sincerely,and non-coercively to deal with the competitive, passionate nature of our society…all of those things which dealt with that are being challenged and brought down,…and what is made to be the substitute is woefully inadequate.

  12. This is so, so true. You give a name to a need we all feel (moreso when it is lacking) but find so hard to articulate. Your posts are extremely insightful and interesting.

  13. Habits are usually very difficult to change, established routines more so.

    Every phase of life, I think, should have a different purpose and I guess the resilience of a society is reflected in the opportunities available to individuals find/define a new sense of concordia.

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