An infestation of coldness haunts me particularly on Friday nights. Heart hunger, perhaps, and a wash of sadness. Like many people, I’m very worried, and vulnerable. Then I scroll through social media and the messaging is that people who have been treated badly should work on themselves.
But while we all need to learn and grow, this love shortage isn’t individual. It is a systemic event. It is a cold shadow oozing, like subtle pollution, from tired faces and exploited hands, closed hospitals, and the screaming couple downstairs. It manifests in the corruption and violence towards activists before a new mine opens on Indigenous lands, but also in the inability of many people to meaningfully connect with others. The love shortage is grown men declaring admiration for their single mothers but never learning to cook, and it is also the blasé attitude towards war in Sudan and floods killing thousands in Libya.
Addressing collective suffering is taking a back seat while the corporate gears of the world churn out pointless plastic goods and weapons at ridiculous rates. We’re being let down by a whole history of invasions, racism, discrimination, exploitation, and performance-based schooling that doesn’t teach people how to be decent and whole human beings. Then we are told to handle it alone and to spend up on retreats and beauty products.
What a pandemic of bad loving looks like
For Erick Fromm, love is an active power consisting of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. For Bell Hooks, it is nurturing growth, commitment, trust, and “honest and open communication.” Love is an attitude towards life, towards our communities and planet, and towards people (from partners to neighbours to refugees). Every human has the right to expect care and respect, not just from the people we interact with, but also from institutions like hospitals and in our workplaces.
When we can’t count on care in our private lives or from the public sphere, we can feel anxious, unsafe, get depressed, get physically ill, and struggle with purpose. It’s also understandable that so many people are inept at loving – for where would they have learned?
A lot of people find it hard to resolve interpersonal conflict, express emotions, or make collective decisions in meetings. Too many marginalised people have had to adapt to not being heard, and, according to one study, most people are terrible listeners who make assumptions and get distracted.
In the dating world alone, manipulation and controlling behaviour are far too often default communication styles – and of course this is seen in the workplace and home as well. A majority of women in the US have experienced harassing behaviour while dating, and there is now a “quiet movement” of women quitting dating out of frustration with assault, abuse, objectification, sexual selfishness, and inequality (e.g. who pays for contraceptive pills or abortions).
Abuse is far too widespread to be an individual problem. Globally, one in three women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, though that is likely an underestimate given only around 10% of rapes are reported. Within families, 70% to 80% of people in the US consider their families to be dysfunctional, and it is so normalised that people struggle to recognise healthy relationships. Here in Mexico, almost a third of older people are abused (physically, psychologically, sexually, economically).
There is an unequal distribution of dignity, where it is the victims seeking and spending money on therapy, if they can, while harassment, rape and femicides often go unpunished.
How many people lack enough love or aren’t loved in a healthy way? Likely a majority. As a basic human need, that equates to a global disaster. While there’s no data on being loved, we know that loneliness is “common” and also worse in poorer regions or areas with less welfare. In the US, 63% of men and 58% of women identified as lonely, while 18% of European citizens are socially isolated.
Part of that is having to prioritise work, and being encouraged to consume rather than care. How can we love well if exhaustion has dried up our dreams and all the tenderness? Many turn to online or instore shopping because it is quick and easy. An auto-generated email from Shein leads with, “You are appreciated!” because they know that love matters, and that fake appreciation is more than most people are getting from their workplace.
These low love levels are reflected in high levels of apathy. Voter turn out is decreasing in Europe, and many tired people have little head space to be concerned about global hunger rates. Allowing people to die of starvation while there is a huge excess of annual food production, is unloving. Littering is unloving, and so are the fossil fuel companies that don’t clean up their oil spills. The love crisis is extensive, not individual.
Love drought because corporations are modelling toxicity and greed
Fossil fuel corporations and others like Coca Cola that are knowingly destroying our climate and allowing millions to die in floods, drought, and from respiratory illnesses each year are committing a premeditated massacre. Many of them then spend millions on greenwashing (for example Shell labelling its fossil gas as renewable), and that sort of gas lighting and manipulation is seen as strategy, rather than as the psychological violence it is. They model that behaviour, and society copies it, just as they model greed and cruelty at the expense of others.
Within corporate workplaces, executives model toxic relationships and disrespectful treatment as they pay low wages, and expect overtime without any sort of reciprocity. At the same time, many companies are trying to pass themselves off as communities. Such internal marketing encourages workers to belong to brands and believe their goals are in sync with the company’s, so that they will sacrifice their time to the company “cause,” rather than live a wholesome life. Using and coercing people in this way, is dehumanising and can affect people’s self worth, and therefore their ability to treat others well. Not to mention that it teaches us to use and coerce ourselves.
Neo-liberal market systems are being adopted into human relationships
The world is run by suited maniacs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who turn every single thing into a transaction. These economically-powerful psychopaths are our societal parents, and so of course friendships and dating (ie apps) quickly become market places and transactions too.
While, as children, parents may be our main models for what love is, that learning continues into the workplace, as we consume media (and its toxic portrayals of fairytale romance or of women as just bodies), and as we watch political and economic leaders drape their wars in eloquent speeches, excuse their way out of social spending, and justify yet another gold mine. We could count on one hand the number of such leaders who model how to truly listen to others.
CEOs, presidents, and red carpet celebrities are the most heard people. So while we are also often influenced by authors, activist leaders, and scientists who chain themselves to JP Morgan Chase to protest global warming, it is the people with the biggest platforms and power who get to set the standard for social behaviour. And for them, greed is acceptable and admirable, you can throw money at things to get your own way rather than having a healthy conversation, and bigotry, sexism, racism, arrogance, deceit, the Dunning Kruger effect (overestimating one’s competence), and blatant recklessness, are all estimable behaviours.
Some of society’s more privileged groups like men, white people, and the upper classes, may identify with these tribes of psychopaths and mimic them, while many oppressed groups and lower classes also aspire to reach their ranks. Neoliberal ideology – where wasteful consumerism is fetishised and it is a dog-eat-dog lonely world of battles for wealth - is dominant, and we must study and get therapy to escape it’s values.
Imperialism promotes conquest and hierarchy as the norm
In Spanish, the word conquistar means to both conquer land and a people, and to seduce or win over a love interest. But invasion means violent entitlement to something that isn’t yours. Healthy love involves connecting with someone, not gaming them into belonging to you.
But colonialism’s lessons and modern imperialism advocate for inequality and subjugation. Violence is a legitimate way of operating, and the subjugated people are, at the most, souvenirs, rather than people with agency. There are strong parallels between the way the US dominates Latin America and the way men often treat women or white owners of multinationals treat their workers.
Imperialism’s toxic patterns, the US’s wars, interventions, and coups, or France’s ongoing role in northern Africa become humanity’s guide book. Inequality doesn’t just have a material impact, globally. It is a nasty state of the world, an unacknowledged and horrific trauma that we’ve been gaslit into living with.
We’re taught that politics has nothing to do with us. That in of itself is a deliberately unempowering message, but also totally false. When the US deports refugees andevades due process for those seeking asylum, we are learning to not be loving and to not be empathetic and help people in need. The gun industry is god and brute force is the reigning logic of society rather than individual and collective self determination.
A lack of care infrastructure leads to distrust and vulnerability
While access to healthcare, education, retirement, childcare, sufficient nutritional food, and worker rights like holidays varies between countries, classes, and other social groups, globally we know that; half the world lacks access to essential health care services, and 90% of working-age people won’t retire with an adequate pension or retirement income.
Care, including elderly care, libraries, investigative journalism, grass roots music and art, and parenting - is constantly being defunded and devalued. While shopping centres take up more and space, getting an abortion or accessing cancer treatment can be frustrating through to impossible.
This lack of care infrastructure makes us feel vulnerable, scared, abandoned, and defensive. In the US, people without health insurance have higher stress levels. Because our world can feel like a hostile environment, we often depend on family or partners and feel obliged to tolerate domestic or family abuse, because we feel even less safe alone.
The lack of support for homeless people, people experiencing abuse, refugees, and others in need, is a love crisis. And its trauma often stays, like hard tar, in our hearts and brains and affects how we in turn treat others. We learn the lessons from the news and the streets and CEOs, and those lessons become habits. Deep connections with friends are some sort of exclusive luxury that many don’t even try for.
Individual self-help products are a band-aid treatment while underlying causes go unattended
Every single adult human has the responsibility to understand their mistakes and to learn from them, to grow constantly, and to endeavour to be kind, considerate beings. We also all deserve accessible therapy or community and collective healing to address our pain. But doing this in isolation from addressing the underlying socio-economic causes is only a stopgap measure. We need justice, reparations, and change.
The global wellness market in 2022 was worth US$4.4 trillion. That includes personal care and beauty, nutrition and weight loss, wellness tourism, for-profit traditional and complementary medicine, wellness spas, public health (just US$375 billion), workplace wellness and mental wellness (self help books, courses etc).
There are big bucks in outsourcing society’s problems to the individual. Sure, most of us need to eat a bit better. But even there, what would really help is if the junk food corporations weren’t pushing their products on us at cheaper prices than healthy food. But beyond the money, there are political reasons for shifting the blame and work onto the victims of an unjust, unempowing and violent world. The idea that people are poor and stressed because they aren’t trying hard enough, obscures corporate responsibility for dignified hours and wages and for the planet.
To fully heal, grow, and become wonderful people, we need clarity about what is happening to us. We need acknowledgement of the damage – both from the abusive ex, but also from the industries that have exploited us, the colonising countries, the entertainment industry that objectifies and dehumanises women, and the politicians who have dismantled public transport.
For men to be true allies in gender justice, they have to work on themselves, for sure. But they also have to speak up about and stop participating in the systems and structures that hurt us. These individual and collective processes complement each other. If you only work on the individual, or only on societal change, then your intentions, words, and actions become out of alignment and you become incongruent and contradictory.
Hope can be found in the fact that despite the conditions we live in, many people still manage to deeply, respectfully love. There are mistakes, confusion, lessons, but there is also solidarity, community organising, solid friendships, and now and then, healthy couples. So many people come home after 13-hour days and still manage to be big-hearted. If we can be this incredible among these levels of stress and violence, imagine how we would be in a healthy, caring, just world.
Love is humanity collectively taking responsibility for each other. It is standing up for our rights and the planet’s rights by organising in movements, staying informed, making demands, and building communities and solutions. And as we build a kind relationship with the world, we learn what to expect from others.
Activism and communities are the antidote to selfishness. Imagine if welcoming refugees, valuing the experience of our elders, and taking care of people with addictions were the societal norm, and how that norm would seep into our interpersonal relations.