Secular loneliness

Lately I’ve been thinking about loneliness and wondering; can urban celebrations or urban interventions combat the loneliness of secular life?

For religious people there is an innate sense of community. Essentially they are just like minded individuals sharing their passion which is cemented by community rituals. Rife as those communities are with problems of repression, expectation and judgement, there’s a portion of the experience that draws people – a sense of home and belonging without the fear and uncertainty of secular life.

The church as an urban artifact and as a point of locus is a grounding point for the community. It’s where you go for togetherness and meditation. It’s a free, available space that you can go to for solace. In modern secular society the only go-to places are capitalist machines. You can go to the mall and hang out, go to the market, go to the gym or go to a bar. In a cold place especially – there’s no where outdoors that is a refuge from the relentless media bombardment of this age.

Urban celebrations are an opportunity, I feel, to ground people together without being a proprietary event. Communal ritual is fundamental to place making. All our ancestors knew that. In every race and culture around the world, you will find some public ritual that involves possessing a space for that group. Hell, dogs pee on things to claim them. It’s all about territory – marking something introduces it to your world narrative. Effective public space is fundamentally about territory and ritually reclaiming city space as ours. Anyone who has taken part in Carnival understands that. This is fundamental to how West Indian people engage space.

The problem with some North American festivals is that people generally don’t understand the notion of reclaiming public space. In fact I suspect that they believe that secular means non-ownership. Therefore public space is not everyones space – it’s no ones space. So the city squares and public domain are occupied only by the homeless and spaceless. People are afraid of each other and they believe that ignoring others is respectful. To them they are giving the other space and time to exist separate from the interference of others. But I don’t think they understand how awful that is when you are a stranger in a strange place and no one is willing to make eye contact with you.

There are places in the world where this is not true. Especially in Europe, there are public places where people gather without the input of the church or government. I remember seeing in Italy how the public squares filled with people each night – playing music, drinking and just being rowdy, happy humans. You see it in small neighbourhoods too – even ghettos. People hang out outside on the street, in front of their building – somewhere visible. They’re marking the space theirs. Graffiti is like this too.

All this is to say that we can do better. People don’t need to feel so isolated in the cities that they live in. Simple interventions can completely change the way people interact. An example is making a public parkette an internet hot spot. Another is by allowing public celebration without the interference of decibel levels and waivers from time to time. These things create a collective narrative of place. They bring people together organically.

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