As the smoke continues to waft down from Canada and linger, I am reminded of loneliness. The US surgeon general declared last month that loneliness is now an American epidemic. Vivek Murthy said that it “takes as deadly a toll as smoking upon the population of the United States.” “Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows,” he said, “and that’s not right.”
While I’m sympathetic to feelings of loneliness, I’m pretty sure no one is truly alone. I’m pretty sure because, this week anyway, the evidence is right there for everyone to see. Every one of us is part “the interdependent web of all existence.” Smoke wafting down from Canada is affirmation of that truth.
“The devastating impacts of climate change”
The smoke is “a thick, hazardous haze that’s disrupting daily life for millions of people across the US and Canada, blotting out skylines and turning skies orange,” the Associated Press reported. It’s “billowing from wildfires in Quebec and Nova Scotia and sending plumes of fine particulate matter as far away as North Carolina and northern Europe,” It could persist through the weekend.
The smoke, according to the Associated Press, “chased baseball players from ballfields, actors from Broadway stages, delayed thousands of flights and sparked a resurgence in mask wearing and remote work — all while raising concerns about the health effects of prolonged exposure to such bad air.”
The smoke is so bad the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the president Wednesday. His office said both leaders “acknowledged the need to work together to address the devastating impacts of climate change.”
We are part of something bigger
“The interdependent web of all existence” is one of the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism, of which I am a card-carrying member. It specifically addresses climate change. It’s not only about that and the fate of our planet, though. It is about the relationship between individuals and communities.
“We make a profound mistake when we limit [the seventh principle] to merely an environmental idea,” Rev. Forrest Gilmore has said. “It is so much more. It is our response to the great dangers of both individualism and oppression. It is our solution to the seeming conflict between the individual and the group.”
The smoke wafting down from Canada and lingering is, to be sure, a reminder of climate change and the dangers we face. But it’s also a reminder that none of us is truly alone – that we are part of something bigger and more profound.
As Rev. Gilmore said: “Our seventh principle may be our Unitarian Universalist way of coming to fully embrace something greater than ourselves. The interdependent web — expressed as the spirit of life, the ground of all being, the oneness of all existence, the community-forming power, the process of life, the creative force, even God — can help us develop that social understanding of ourselves that we and our culture so desperately need.”
The smoke is the proof
We deny that. We instead insist on being a country of individualists. After the US surgeon general declared loneliness an American epidemic, the Associated Press’s Ted Anthony dove deep into the social history of individualism to explain “how the American Dream convinces people loneliness is normal.”
In May, Anthony wrote that, “as far back as the early 19th century, when the word ‘loneliness’ began to be used in its current context in American life, some were already asking the question: Do the contours of American society — that emphasis on individualism, that spreading out with impunity over a vast, sometimes outsized landscape — encourage isolation and alienation? Or is that, like other chunks of the American story, a premise built on myths?”
It’s a myth. No one is truly alone. The smoke is proof.
Will the smoke trigger a systemic response to climate change?
Maybe. But if a once-a-century plague did not smash the myth of the rugged individualist – if the covid did not prove that no one is truly alone and that we’re all in this together – neither will a few days of hazy skies over Gotham.
In any case, it’s important to remember that a systemic response to climate change does not depend on most people most of the time coming around to believing that no one is truly alone and that we’re all in this together. Some people will come around. Most won’t. Denial is the American superpower.
A systemic response to climate change depends on the iron will of small and highly organized groups of people, like the Unitarian Universalists, who have set out to bravely declare, against the political grain, that every person, whether lonely or not, is part of “the interdependent web of all existence.”
It depends on some people telling all people that they are not alone.