As I’ve thought about Brexit over the last few days (Britain’s exit from the European Union), it reminds me of the struggle that I see in our country and in many of my patients. There are numerous opinions out there about why the British made this choice. One of the common themes that I’ve heard is “They wanted to take back their country.” The theory is that they were tired of feeling out of control of their borders, and that they did not want their fate to be so tied to the political fortunes of the other members of the union. Of course, as all of the ramifications of the exit became clear, there was some regret. It seems that perhaps the average citizen did not realize how significant the withdrawal effects would be and how interconnected they already were.
Isn’t this really the core issue for all of us whether on a national or personal level? Erik Erikson, a well-known psychologist active during the 1950’s and 60’s, proposed 8 stages of personality development. The 6th stage was intimacy vs. isolation. Erikson felt that this phase of personality development took place between ages 18 and 40, the time when young adults were beginning intimate relationships beyond the family of origin that could lead to long-term commitment, and a sense of trust, safety, security, and connection within a relationship. Failure to master this phase of personality development could lead to isolation and loneliness both in personal relationships and with the world in general.
How many times have we as individuals and as a country danced between intimacy and isolationism? When an intimate relationship goes bad, the natural tendency is to isolate. “I’ll never date again” is a refrain that I often hear. But rarely do people really stay isolated forever, because deep down, most of us do have a drive to connect and to avoid loneliness and despair.
The same dance seems to occur on a national level. After the devastating effects of World War I, the US moved to a much more isolationist stance. We refused to join the League of Nations because there was concern that we could be drawn into growing conflicts in Europe. Our absence in the League of Nations possibly resulted in that body being much less effective in dealing with the rising conflict in Europe. Finally, we were forced out of this stance by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Did we pay a price for our refusal to be more involved in world politics, the equivalent of intimacy vs. isolation in Erikson’s stages of personality development?
As we watch Europe being flooded with refugees, dealing with the uncertainty of who is a terrorist and who isn’t, it is not surprising that we would choose to isolate. We have the advantage of geographical distance from Europe. However, as we have seen, those conflicts can easily move to our country, and they already have. Isolationism doesn’t prevent that. In the same way, avoiding intimate personal relationships doesn’t guarantee happiness. It’s a trade-off; less short-term acute hurt but more long-term depression and despair.
Isolationism, at least in its extreme form, seems to me to be a temporary withdrawal to re-fuel and repair. That may be necessary in some cases. But as we saw pre-World War II, that stance did not keep us from being involved in outside conflicts. Connection with others, whether on a personal or national level, can eventually result in increased communication and understanding of each other’s values. It seems to me that a more connected world is a more tolerant world. If we are more dependent on each other, will that result in more tolerance out of necessity? Being more dependent on others is a scary concept. But is also increases the need to get along. How do we get there? I don’t know exactly. I believe it will take generations to achieve.
Perhaps we can start with thinking about the issue of intimacy vs. isolation in our own lives. Though Erikson was thinking primarily of intimate relationships, I think it applies to our connection with community as well. It seems to me that trying to connect with people who seem different, people from another culture, or race, or sexual orientation, can only increase understanding of one another. When people make disparaging remarks about gays or Muslims or another other groups, I wonder if they’ve actually talked to one. I would be willing to bet that the answer is no. Though it is not a quick fix, I do believe that people who communicate and try to understand one another are less likely to kill each other.