Voices: The answer to my heartache came from the unlikeliest person - Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton (AFP via Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton (AFP via Getty Images)

It was behind a 17th Century Irish Presbyterian church where I finally asked God a question that had been weighing on my heart for days: “why him?” I had just seen a man play the most beautiful piece on an old piano inside the sanctuary, his moving concerto reverberating through the oak pews and my stone heart. I was falling in love with him. He was not falling in love with me.

Despite being surrounded by people, I have never felt more alone. Here I was, accomplished professionally but utterly bereft personally. Were my tears those of unrequited love, or did I cry out in the loneliness of the 21st century?

An answer to my question came from, of all people, Hillary Clinton. Writing for The Atlantic, the former secretary of state and erstwhile presidential candidate told of a stark warning from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy: Americans are dangerously lonely, and our society is to blame. “Too often, when Americans face boarded-up storefronts, empty pews, and crumbling schools,” she said, pointing to the policy failures that have led us here, “it’s despair, loneliness, and resentment that fill the void.”

This bears out in the data, and startlingly so. A story in The New York Times last week reported on rising levels of alcohol abuse among women, including older women who may feel lonely. More than a third of adults over 45 feel lonely, per the CDC. Diseases of despair are driving down life expectancy for young Americans, with Millennials and Gen Z being the loneliest generations. It’s not surprising having lived through the Great Recession and the pandemic, with a growing number of Millennials delaying having children, or choosing not to.

I am one of those Millennials, but am beginning to question my choices. Professional success does not inoculate us from the need for companionship and love. No less than Murthy himself experienced this, writing earlier this year in The New York Times that following his first tenure as Surgeon General, which ended in 2017, he experienced loneliness because he “had largely neglected my friendships during my tenure, convincing myself that I had to focus on work and I couldn’t do both.”

This feeling resonates with me; I have single-mindedly focused on my career as an adult. Now, here I found myself, standing behind a church and realizing all I had to show for my decisions was a series of bylines and a broken heart. I couldn’t even think of a single friend I felt comfortable enough opening up to about this pain, so distant had I grown from the friends who used to anchor me.

Ironically, the age of social media can make it even harder to connect, something the actress Selena Gomez opened up about in 2017. “I feel like I know everybody but have no friends,” she said, articulating what I think many of us feel. And following his split from Camilla Cabello last year, the singer Shawn Mendes opened up about his own loneliness. “It’s like, oh, I’m on my own now. Now I feel like finally, like, I’m actually on my own, and I hate that. That’s my reality, you know?”

I do know, Shawn. Millions of us do. Citing data from the CDC, Clinton writes that “over the past two decades, Americans have spent significantly more time alone, engaging less with family, friends, and people outside the home. By 2018, just 16 percent of Americans said they felt very attached to their local community.”

The problem is, as Clinton points out, our society is not set up to facilitate family building or community cohesion. I have lost count of how many friends have complained about how hard it is to meet new friends as an adult. There are simply too few places to socialize and to meet people. “Many of the activities and relationships that had defined and sustained previous generations, such as attending religious services and joining unions, clubs, and civic organizations - even participating in local bowling leagues - were disappearing,” Clinton writes, citing Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone.

Since its publication 23 years ago, things have only gotten worse. The Internet has driven us into both narcissistic psychoses – exacerbating the individualistic culture of the post-Reagan neoliberal age – and into echo chambers where the lonely are preyed upon by nefarious actors looking to exploit their vulnerability. Or, as Clinton succinctly puts it, “instead of nonpartisan volunteers and civic organizations like the League of Women Voters, we have MAGA election deniers and QAnon enthusiasts.”

On the left, we have no such movement. Instead, we can and should talk about the public policy decisions which have led us here, and public policies which might lead us back to a more cohesive community. Quoting Murthy, Clinton lays out several of these in her piece: adopting pro-family policies like paid-leave, investing in public transit and community infrastructure, oversight and regulation of tech companies, and nurturing our own relationships while seeking “opportunities to serve and support others.”

This is especially important as modern society continues to force us into isolation. Work-from-home promises to revolutionize employment, but will it come at a cost that we must be willing to discuss?

As for my shattered and wretched heart? I have previously written about how difficult it is dating in my small southern American city, and I question my hopes of finding love again in this modern world.

Despite this, I am gradually finding new friendships sprouting as I travel and explore the world. Even if my affections are unrequited, I would rather be second, third, one hundredth fiddle than not play in the band at all.