Jan 302014
Simone Weil

Simone Weil (1909–43), philosopher, political activist, and mystic

You can feel lonely whether you’re by yourself or in company, and there’s lots of evidence that it’s bad for your health. Being personal, Come Alive at The Haven, and Simone Weil can help! Read on to find out how …

In the Vancouver Foundation’s 2012 survey of metro Vancouver entitled Connections and Engagement, one third of the people surveyed said they found it difficult to make new friends. One in four said they were alone more often than they would like to be. In both cases, people who experienced this also reported poorer health (as well as lower trust and a hardening of attitudes toward other community members).1

There is a large body of research that links social isolation with poor health. Lonely people suffer more  depression, heart disease, sleeping problems, high blood pressure, and even an increased risk of dementia in  older age. Importantly, it is not simply being alone that can lead to poor health. It is the feeling of loneliness —  including that ‘alone in the crowd’ feeling – that can affect health.

In fact, most research indicates that feeling isolated is more dangerous than being isolated. In one 2012 study, psychologist John Cacioppo and colleagues looked at data from more than 2,100 adults ages 50 and older and found that feelings of loneliness were associated with increased mortality over a six-year period. The finding was unrelated to marital status and number of relatives and friends nearby, and also unrelated to health behaviours such as smoking and exercise.

“It’s not being alone or not” that affects your health, Cacioppo says. “You can feel terribly isolated when you’re around other people.”2

At The Haven we address the problems of isolation and feeling lonely in many ways. One frame we use to talk about it is what we call the Resonance Model. In this model, we suggest that as people increasingly conform to and internalize the expectations of their families and society they become stuck in the roles they play and lose touch with their authentic natures. They treat themselves and others more as objects than as persons, showing one another only what they think is expected of them. Among the consequences of this are an experience of meaninglessness and loneliness. Even when they are in company, including that of partners, friends and family, there can still be that experience of terrible isolation.

I have recently discovered the life and work of Simone Weil, and find in some of her writing echoes of this idea. In 1934–5, the young Weil, born into an affluent Parisian family and educated at the elite École Normale Supérieure, worked in a number of factories in France, as an expression of solidarity and empathy with working class people. Writing about work on a production line, she said:3

You are an object subject to the will of another being. Since it is not natural for man to become a thing, and since there is no physical constraint, such as whips or chains, you must bend yourself to this passivity. How one would love to leave one’s soul in the little box where one places one’s clocking ticket, and take it up again upon leaving! But one can’t … one must continually silence it.

She returns to the theme that it is “not natural for man to become a thing” in The Iliad or The Poem of Force.4 Force, she says, is that which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. “Exercised to the limit,” she writes, “it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.” She continues with this extraordinary passage:

From [force’s] first property (the ability to turn a human being into a thing by the simple method of killing him) flows another, quite prodigious too in its own way, the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive. He is alive; he has a soul; and yet – he is a thing. An extraordinary entity this – a thing that has a soul. And as for the soul, what an extraordinary house it finds itself in! Who can say what it costs, moment by moment, to accommodate itself to this residence, how much writhing and bending, folding and pleating are required of it? It was not made to live inside a thing; if it does so, under pressure of necessity, there is not a single element of its nature to which violence is not done.

For me, this is a vivid image of what we do to ourselves in shaping ourselves, often unconsciously, to the demands of society and others, or to the demands of our internalized ideals. It costs us a great deal, this “writhing and bending, folding and pleating,” and leads to the loneliness, isolation and ill health that the metro Vancouver report and others highlight.

In Come Alive and other Haven programs we offer people opportunities to rediscover who they really are, the person more than the object – in Weil’s terms the soul that has worked so hard to accommodate itself to an unnatural home. It is as people do this that they can learn to relate personally to others, through courageously revealing to one another their true thoughts and feelings and opening themselves to the deeper realities of other people’s lives. In this way, it is possible to move out of loneliness and isolation, into connection and engagement.

You can read more about The Haven’s Resonance Model in this booklet, Ideas in Action.

I hope you will join Jane Olynyk and me for Come Alive, February 16–21. Call the registrars on 1 800 222 9211 or send them an email.

  1. Connections and Engagement: A Survey Of Metro Vancouver, June 2012.
  2. Anna Miller, Friends Wanted, APA Monitor on Psychology, Jan 2014.
  3. Quoted in Francine du Plessix Gray, Simone Weil (Penguin Lives), 2001.
  4. In Simone Weil, An Anthology, ed. Sian Miles (Penguin Books), 1986.
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