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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