City Life: 10 Million Is The Loneliest Number

While cities are interesting places to visit, they are the worst places to live in

BY JOSHUA ALVAREZ

Sofia Turkey

I grew up in the Chicagoland area, went to college in the Bay Area, traveled to the major European capitals, and briefly lived in two of the biggest and most congested cities in the world: Cairo, Egypt and Istanbul, Turkey. In a word, I’ve seen more than my fair share of urban landscapes. In my twenty four years I have never taken up residence outside a major population center. Today, I live in Arlington, Virginia, but am only one metro stop away from the District of Columbia.

Luckily, my life is not entirely a ceaseless reel of city life. There are some precious, though altogether too rare, scenes of nature and small town settings. Over the past few years, especially since living abroad in two cities each populated by over 20 million people, going into nature or visiting small towns has felt increasingly rejuvenating. So much so that I feel, perhaps prematurely, certain that I will ultimately settle in a small town tucked away in nature. Yet, it’s not only the attraction of nature and small town life that is drawing me away from city life. I’ve gradually become convinced that city life, while certainly boasting a considerable number of advantages, is not conducive to a healthy, peaceful, or free lifestyle.

First, allow me to acknowledge cities’ major benefits and advantages: readily available resources, culture, diversity, and an array of activities and attractions. I think each item speaks for itself and needs no further elaboration.

Washington DCStill, I believe some of city life’s downsides outweigh its benefits. First, I think city life is not conducive to mental and physical health. There is a huge variety of reasons why I believe this to be the case, but there is one that is especially damaging: noise. Excessive noise from cars, sirens, people yelling, and, worst of them all, jet engines not only increases anxiety and stress (and, according to more than one health study, blood pressure) it makes it impossible to concentrate and string thoughts together. No less a great thinker than Arthur Schopenhauer, writing in the 19th century, fumed at the “infernal cracking of whips” in narrow streets and the unending racket of city life, which “paralyzes the brain, destroys all meditation, and murders thought.”  Schopenhauer may have been a crank, but he certainly was not alone. In his own essay, “On Noise,” he cites other eminent thinkers like Kant and Goethe as having made similar complaints. No doubt, some of you reading this brush this off and claim to not be sensitive to noise. Actually, you have no control over your body’s sensitivity to noise because the damage happens at a subconscious level. One experiment found that even when you sleep, noise causes increased blood pressure and stress.

I also think city life is not conducive to emotional health. Perhaps the most conspicuous omission in my list of benefits and advantages is social life. The modern city is rife with bars, clubs, and other establishments meant to serve as social gathering places, but  not only do I believe that cities are detrimental to the creation of healthy and genuine personal relationships, I think that it’s in cities where loneliness is most likely to ferment. I am neither a full extrovert or introvert (which throughout my life drove personality test administrators up a wall). I value moments of solitude more than most things in life. I get as much, if not more, energy from reading, writing, listening to music, and reflecting on my own thoughts as I do engaging with friends, family, and new acquaintances. In other words, being alone is not the equivalent of being lonely. Being alone does not cause loneliness. Loneliness is the deprivation of spirit. For the vast majority of us, the debilitating disease of loneliness, as Kurt Vonnegut called it, is kept at bay by visceral, unwavering connections to other human beings. Loneliness cannot claim a man whose emotional well-being is utterly, inextricably, mutually dependent on the well-being of another person. This type of connection is not casual or fleeting. Nor is it possible to proliferate beyond a handful of individuals. For the people with whom you share this connection, you would literally throw your life away, you would readily die for them without thought or hesitation. In a word, it is love. Love is the antidote to loneliness. Even the most introverted person, who extracts the most energy from solitude and introversive reflection, cannot know himself completely or have a healthy spirit without love for others.

Jerusalem Israel

All this is to say what Aldous Huxley, a man of prophetic intellect and concern for the fulfillment and freedom of individuals, observed in the twilight of his life. “City life is anonymous and, as it were, abstract. People are related to one another, not as total personalities, but as the embodiments of economic functions or, when they are not at work, as irresponsible seekers of entertainment. Subjected to this kind of life, individuals tend to feel lonely and insignificant. Their existence ceases to have any point or meaning.” Worst yet, cities prevent all but the most sensitive and attentive minds from realizing the insignificance of their priorities, activities, conversations, and relations. In short, people become lonely without even noticing. Urbanites’ relationships are based on what they do and what they have rather than who they are. In short, what should be personal becomes mechanical, what should be visceral becomes utilitarian.

Cities are the products of mass economics. The forces of mass production and mass consumption logically lead to the creation of huge urban landscapes. The past 150 years of world history belongs to the city. Cities have been the font of material, intellectual, and political progress, but these substantial benefits have come at an extraordinary cost. Contemporary society, wrote Erich Fromm, “is increasingly less conducive to mental health, and tends to undermine the inner security, happiness, reason, and the capacity for love in the individual; it tends to turn him into an automaton who pays for his human failure with increasing mental sickness, and with despair hidden under a frantic drive for work and so-called pleasure.”

Cairo EgyptThere’s a touch of irony when people describe a city as “buzzing” and mean it as a compliment. Buzzing is an onomatopoeic word usually referring to the annoying sound a bothersome flying insect makes. Their buzzing makes it impossible to concentrate on the magazine in front of you or to enjoy the food you are eating. Nary a quiet thought can escape the despotic buzzing of a bug zipping past your eardrum. Similarly, cities overload the senses and thoroughly distract individuals, but a city’s buzzing is more than its noise level. It’s the incessant hum of millions of people struggling, chasing, consuming, laboring, capitulating to their slightest whims and desires, and pursuing superficial activity, all in an epic effort to smother and drown out the deafening silence of loneliness, meaninglessness, emptiness, and lack of contemplation. Naturally, distraction becomes an addiction. Cities “move fast” because time becomes a commodity, to be “spent” and not “wasted.” The frantic craze for stimulation suppresses the all too human needs of emotional fulfillment.

The detrimental consequences of city life are not limited to the individual. Cities not only undermine individual fulfillment, it threatens the very basis of a democratic society. They do not “foster the kind of responsible freedom within small self-governing groups, which is the first condition of a genuine democracy,” wrote Huxley. Cities are not favorable to the decentralization of power. Over-population and over-organization require a top-down, administrative model of government. Municipal policymakers and bureaucrats are anonymous and largely unknown, yet are responsible for most of the administration of the city’s government. True self-government requires personal relationships to exist between those who govern and the governed. Instead, city politics is subjected to the gloss of mass communications and becomes as mechanical as the urban landscape around it. The term “political machine” is all too appropriate when describing city politics.

Throughout my youth I was convinced that I would be a life-long city dweller, but a life of traveling and living in cities around the United States and the world has forced me to scrutinize wether life in a city is really all it’s cracked up to be. I cannot help but notice a number of disturbing patterns and characteristics that are becoming more pronounced. While this essay does not nearly cover all my concerns, I hope that these are enough to give the reader pause. Indeed, what is written here is based off one man’s observations, but I seem to be joining good company with other writers who also found city life bewildering, if not a cause for protestation.

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Jerry Alonzo Leon

Contributor

Jerry's favorite country to travel to is Spain. When he's on the road, he keeps it real simple with a pen and a pad. His travel style is spontaneous, easygoing, and always in search of a great adventure.

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