Thursday, April 9, 2009

Go Outside? Where There's People?

So, it's a new week, and after spending five nights working on the previous entry - which I suspect few will read, quite understandably - I'm now sitting down early on Wednesday morning to write a much shorter (See: "normal"-sized) blog entry. Following this one, the "Sane Gaming" series will end at the end of this week, and I'll be looking for even more topics to blog on regularly to keep mixing things up and varying the content produced here.

That said, onward to this week's non-gaming post! In a recent exchange over at New York Words, Lindsay suggested I give her some tips on the hermit life, in dealing with some pretty major changes of her own these days. So I figured, hey, why not? And so, this week, we examine the hermit lifestyle, cultural trends behind those living more withdrawn lives, and how to successfully live a hermit lifestyle of sorts without going insane. All this is a subject I'm almost depressingly well-versed in, being a lifelong introvert and not having any local friends to hang out with. (And there's the whole misanthropy thing, too, of course.) Despite these matters, my reclusive lifestyle is also a matter of personal choice.

When it comes to whether you're well suited to being much of a hermit or not, the first question you should ask yourself is one of introversion versus extroversion. Does interaction with your fellow human beings exhaust or energize you? If it's the former, you're off to a good start. If the latter, you'll probably just end up tormenting yourself. Of course, most people fall somewhere in between the two, rather than falling to one extreme or the other, so it's a matter likely to complicate itself some with the necessity of figuring out which of the two extremes you lean more toward. Being comfortable alone within your own mind for long stretches of time is absolutely crucial.

Hermit Reasoning, Culture, and Philosophical Rambling

There's a lot of value to be found in solitude itself, but only when you make a point of actively seeking it. Isolation seems like a better word for when solitude creeps up on you against your wishes. Undesired solitude can lead to loneliness and potentially depression from a lack of human connections and relationships. But in seeking solitude by choice - even to the point of becoming a recluse - can remove many of the distractions in the world that come from socializing and allow one to form new trains of thought and develop new perspectives. It's hard to get lost in thought when participating in an active social life, and as such, time alone with one's thoughts is crucial to deeper introspection and personal philosophizing - all sorts of lines of thinking that tend to play an important role in the search for self-actualization. This is something most people do not participate in - something that prevents many people from becoming fully formed individuals who know and understand themselves. As such, a tremendous part of the human populous is deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives, and most of them likely don't know why. We try to fill the gaps with things like material possessions and religion, but the problem for many seems to be a complete lack of self-understanding beneath the surface.

Trends in traditionally conceived developmental milestones in young people's lives are already noticeably changing here in America. Many young people here these days end up living at home longer, with fewer in Gen Y being able to "start their life" due to the current economic situation with employment opportunities vanishing. Not to mention the fact that many employers demand that you already have experience - regardless of your educational background and actual qualifications - that you can't actually get unless someone's willing to hire you so you can start gaining experience in the field. Working retail or fast food - the typical jobs most people will shrug and tell you to get - does not provide relevant experience for most careers and will mean relatively little on most resumes.

Many people don't want to trap themselves in a dead-end career or job where they're miserable just to survive, either. There's little meaning in the independence found in moving out and starting your own life if said life is consumed by a depressing job that you have no choice but to work if you want to get by. Looking at how many people take that sort of path through life, it's really no wonder why so many people in the world are so unhappy.

Sadly, many turn away from the idea of working to change society - to get away from this sort of framework and infrastructure - because "this is the way things are, this is how they're supposed to be, you have to live this way." As fallacious as this sort of thought is, there's no shortage of people who believe it in order to justify maintaining the status quo. It's that sort of thinking that creates a civilization full of people shackled by existential angst, afraid to do what they want with their life and pursue their dreams because everyone else is telling them they can't or that they're not supposed to. Personally, I posit that a life spent trapped in a line of work you have no passion for, with no choice but to continue working it in order to survive and no real hope of ever finding any sort of meaningful happiness or satisfaction in existence is a life hardly lived at best.

This sort of mindset that traps people in their unhappiness is oppressive to the very nature of the human spirit - our curiosity, our passion, our desire to strive for more in existence. It's not healthy, and it's not the sort of mindset we should be embracing as a society, civilization, or species in order to grow or move forward into the future in any meaningful sense. Instead of simply accepting our lot in life - especially if it's depressing - and giving up on everything in falling into the careerist "cog in the machine" lifestyle trap, we should be questioning the system and asking how we can improve it and ideally move beyond it to create a more enlightened world where people can pursue what they want to and have a legitimate shot at seeking happiness. We should be refining our way of life - not settling for anything, let alone justifying others' unhappiness or casting off the victims of the economic times as "losers," as has become increasingly common and popular in conservative political thought these days. (Which, frankly, is hardly thought at all - nothing but dehumanizing hivemind rhetoric backed by personal avarice. Sure, Ayn Rand might smile on that, but the human race? Not so much. We're capable of so much more than we often manage to accomplish, due to dehumanizing, backward-thinking forces that seem to exist in every era to lower the level of human thought and discourse - to strip our existence of meaning to the ends of their own twisted benefit.)

When it comes to the hermit lifestyle, the construction of cities in society can be an issue, too. Here in America, unless you live in a major city with a strong public transportation system (The sort of thing North Carolina lacks) - especially if you're living in the suburbs or somewhere like that - you're effectively trapped and unable to get anywhere without a car, since this country's largely built to necessitate car ownership and frequent use. For many of us, it's not the safest or most appealing way to get around to begin with, and car ownership and gas costs are expensive - these days, becoming prohibitively so. In the least, we're starting to see more of an interest in proper funding for public transportation around the nation again And the fuller introduction of the electric car isn't too far off on the horizon now, with American car manufacturers struggling to change their business models and become competitive again.

If you're going to become a hermit or recluse of any sort, there's numerous reasons for choosing to do so - the most important element in getting the most out of that sort of lifestyle being the active choice. And transportation issues in America can certainly contribute to that sort of choice, when people would prefer not to take part in our dangerous, polluting, expensive car-obsessed element of American culture.


Welcome to the NHK. The story of a Hikikomori attempting to recover.In recent years, a more problematic trend of chosen reclusion has surfaced in Japan, known as the Hikikomori phenomenon. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare defines Hikikomori as "individuals who refuse to leave their parents' house and isolate themselves from society for a period exceeding six months." (When Hikikomori do venture outside at all, it's usually later at night when people are more easily avoided, and typically just to buy food.) The term "Hikikomori" itself is applied to both the sociological problem and the individuals themselves who take part in this societal group.

Frequently starting out as students who refuse to attend school, the problem of Hikikomori stems largely from the constant pressures of life in Japanese society: feeling overwhelmed by society's expectations (Particularly in facing the expectation that they'll go on to be successful and maintain the status quo while learning to manage complicated rules of social conduct, rigid hierarchies, and the multitude of insanely complex and sometimes contradictory social responsibilities, expectations, and duties in all possible situations, and the education system also emphasizes fierce competition between peers), an incomplete sense of honne and tatemae (A central aspect of interpersonal communication in Japanese society, one's "true self" versus one's "public facade" expressed when speaking with acquaintances and strangers), difficulties with the transition from youth to the responsibilities of adult life (Modern capitalist societies, like Japan, do often seem to lack meaningful transformation rituals from youth to adulthood for many types of personalities - often relying on the idea that if you toss anyone out into that world, they'll have to learn the swim, lest they sink. An inherently flawed approach.), and remaining Confucian influences (The Confucian philosophy continues to influence much of modern Asia today, with a focus on conformity over individualism in the name of harmony in a rigidly hierarchical society, leading to the appearance of the Hikikomori phenomenon in South Korea, Taiwan, and China as well).

In addition to East Asia's cultural pressures, western countries have pressures both similar and different affecting their youth as well, Hikikomori have been found in the USA and Europe as well. Conceptually, they've begun to get enough attention in Japan that Hikikomori have begun to be represented in various forms of pop culture, including anime, manga, and TV dramas - sometimes portrayed negatively, and sometimes sympathetically.

Not unlike what we're starting to see more of in the west these days, flat and declining economic conditions are helping to shape the Hikikomori phenomenon in Japan. With no guarantee of employment or success, many have begun to question the point of immersing themselves in the stressful world of required ultra-competitive schooling for today's elite jobs.

Previous generations enjoyed the kind of access to work that today's youth lack, and as such, like in the west, it's easy for many youths in Japan to become completely disillusioned with a system in society that was built to serve their parents and grandparents, but fails to serve their generation. Evidence of this sort of systemic societal failure is something that's only becoming more apparent in the western world as well, even cross-generationally as older workers are finding themselves dismissed from jobs they may have worked for decades every week now in large numbers. When the systems we had in place across the world before are failing so many now, is it any wonder that so many are looking to redefine what happiness is to them? People are starting to lean away from careerism and obsession with material wealth and gain because that system has failed them, and continues to fail many. You can't really find a meaningful happiness within that line of thinking to begin with, as we're starting to see with cracks forming in that great capitalist dream we always liked to think about in the past - which was more of a black and white sham that a lot of people got rich on to begin with - as the system itself frequently works against ordinary people, and fails to provide a sustainable life to people far more often for far more reasons than the mere "laziness" that capitalism's blind cheerleaders would attempt to blame for anyone's failings in the system. Life isn't and never has been that simple anywhere, and we'd have to be far shallower creatures than humans are by nature to exist solely to work to make money and consume products. We're not hollow androids that exist to simply fill a role in the capitalist grid and bend to the whims of the wealthy. That's not where art grows, that's not where the human spirit itself is enriched. It's where creativity and intellectualism go to die.

In Japan and much of East Asia, you spend your whole life expected to viciously compete with your peers - the school system based around a pass-or-fail ideology laden with entrance exams largely based on rote memorization, creating levels of stress and pressure that cause a notable number of youth suicides within the culture. Students are expected by parents, the school system, and society as a whole to conform to these educational standards and force themselves to jump through the flaming hoops to mold themselves into productive parts of a rigid, archaic system of Confucian-influenced living with no alternatives. You're a winner or a loser, with no in-between. As this system continues to crumble, more and more youths continue to reject the system entirely, questioning it and calling for reform and change where so many stand in favor of maintaining something inherently broken and irrelevant to the development of humanity in this modern world - not unlike America's own battle between its left and right wing schools of political thought, change versus a crumbling status quo that worked in the past and no longer serves this generation nor stands to pave the way to a brighter future, causing more harm than good in this day and age.

The Hikikomori social withdrawal has been compared to western adults with developmental disorders such as autism and Asperger Syndrome. Japan actually has the highest incidence of this sort of disorder in the developed world, affecting between 1.2 and 2.2% of Japanese children. Western psychologists have suggested that there's a tie between these disorders and the Hikikomori in Japan, but Japanese psychologists have researched and rejected this notion, finding that emotionally distant parenting leading to the development of youth Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a more common factor in the development of Hikikomori. When journalist Michael Zielenziger researched the phenomenon for his book, Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation, he found that Hikikomori were intelligent, independent-thinking individuals with a sense of self that the current Japanese environment could not accommodate. Personally, I could see this being a factor in the quietly growing western Hikikomori/hermit trends as well - living and thinking in a way that our broken capitalist system cannot and will not support.

In addition to the Hikkikomori, two other groups rejecting traditional lifestyles in Japan are "parasite singles" (adults who live with their parents into their late twenties or early thirties to enjoy a more comfortable and carefree life) and "freeters" (people between the ages of 15 and 34 lacking employment who reject a careerist lifestyle). Both of these lifestyle trends are notably on the rise in large numbers of young people and will undoubtedly play a role in reshaping Japanese society in the future - but these same kinds of people can be found over the globe, rejecting our "traditional" (and largely capitalist) way of life in calling for something else, something other than throwing one's life away in an office for the sake of making money. These days in Japan, a majority of young people - women even more so than men (And even the Hikikomori phenomenon affects young women as widely as men in Japan) - between ages 20 and 34 live with their parents, abandoning the previously conceived notion of the traditional milestone of "leaving the nest" to start your own life, instead saving up money from work in living with their parents, and leaving only when they get married, with rising numbers preferring to live with their parents until marriage. This sort of behavior - as previously discussed in most young people no longer realistically being able to move out after finishing college in America - is frequently stigmatized more in the west, but as it continues as a trend, that stigma may eventually change.

Freeters are, in the west, essentially slackers, who - like parasite singles - are largely looked down upon as lazy and useless. In Japan, the Institute of Labor classifies freeters as three types: The moratorium type is made up of those who choose not to join the rat race and stick to the minimum amount of work and hours they need to put into low skill, low paying jobs like retail and service work, simply doing what they need to in order to survive - who would probably avoid work entirely if they didn't have to at the necessity of survival - and are unlikely to be able to start a career (As low pay, low skill jobs do not amount to career-building experience) let alone afford to start a family. Male freeters of this variety hope to start a career later in life as so to support a family. While female freeters of this type tend to hope to marry a successful man who can take care of their financial needs.

The second freeter type - the dream-followers - are far more interested in pursuing their dreams. Living a more bohemian lifestyle, they seek out something incompatible with the traditional Japanese career model through with to enrich their lives and themselves as individuals, rather than becoming a cog, forsaking their individuality to plug into the system in search of financial prosperity.

And the "no alternative" freeters are generally people seeking employment, but take low paying, low skill jobs out of a lack of choice. In Japan today, young people are finding it increasingly difficult to find work upon graduating from university - women face even more daunting odds than men. And large numbers of young people find themselves leaving their jobs within the first three years, with career and life dissatisfaction running high in these recent generations.

It's becoming something globally noticeable - that both Gen X and Gen Y are finding the previous generations' systems and ways of life unsatisfactory for their needs as individuals, not wanting to simply become living machinery parts, but to develop into more fully formed individuals whose lives don't simply revolve around pursuing a career.

Keeping Sane as a Hermit

Let's not kid ourselves - humans are social creatures by nature that need to interact with one another lest we wither and die. A complete and utter lack of contact with other human beings in any form - while something one might look at as admirable in a Buddhist monk seeking enlightenment - is still unhealthy for most people, and can potentially lead to all sorts of mental problems. (Particularly so if the lifestyle isn't a matter of personal choice.) In fact, lack of stimulus in withdrawal from society can be brutal on a person.

That's the key element in keeping sane - as Hikikomori certainly often do - when living a hermit lifestyle: stimulus. Thanks to the internet, you can have friends without actually seeing people in person. Email allows for virtual pen-pals, instant messengers allow real-time text conversation, and of course, voice chat over programs like Skype allow for completely free voice-over-IP phone-like communication. Hermits and Hikikomori alike tend to have few friends, but when you get down to it, most people that "normal" people call friends are essentially glorified acquaintances - most people have few real friends in any meaningful sense over the course of their life. People tend to assume they'll meet more people and make more connections than they do in the end, and rarely is enough time taken to properly treasure the rare meaningful connections people form with friends and romantic partners. The idea that "if I lose these people, I'll just find someone else" - whether to watching friendships or a good relationship fly out the window over something insignificant - is pervasive. Many people end up alone or settling for relationships they're unhappy within simply to avoid being alone. For many - unlike the hermits and Hikikomori - the prospect of being alone is terrifying. So while hermits and Hikikomori may not have many people in their lives to call friends, given the introspective nature of a life alone, these friendships and interpersonal themselves may be of a more stimulating, enriching nature - quality over quantity.

Outside of a bit of interpersonal communication, hobbies are also critically important. In Japan, Hikikomori tend to set their own sleep schedules - something I admittedly do myself - and spend much of the day sleeping, while spending their nights watching TV, drawing, playing video or computer games, listening to music, reading, surfing the internet, and engaging in other non-social mentally stimulating activities. Most Hikikomori - like most hermits - naturally venture outside from time to time, as no one can simply lock themselves up all the time.

As a hermit, it's absolutely important to get out of your house or apartment and neighborhood some each week if you can. Fresh air's important stuff, after all - as bad as the pollen is at this time of the year - as is sunlight, and it's generally much better for your mental health to change your scenery at least a little on a weekly basis.

If you want to survive as a hermit, Hikikomori, or however else you'd want to identify yourself, you'd first want to determine your personal reasons for living that sort of lifestyle. But you'll also want to make sure to keep some kind of healthy social network - even if only through keeping up with friends through the internet, since as unhealthy as that sounds, it's becoming very much a standard part of human culture and communication - and take up and develop a healthy array of hobbies and interests. Between all that and the abundance of interesting content on the internet, you'll have no shortage of the all-important mental stimulus.

We live today in a postmodern, post-industrial society trying desperately to cling to the ideologies and societal constructs of the 19th and 20th centuries. When your society is fixated on maintaining the status quo, it really has nowhere to go but down. We're told not to question these ideas as they continue to fail younger generations and this constructed society begins to tear at the seams. We try to slap financial band-aids on these tears and insist that "the free market will take care of everything," that capitalist ideals will make everyone successful and happy so long as we work hard. This is a society that seeks to turn people into machines, to oppress the human spirit, to keep us too exhausted and burnt out to achieve our needs for survival to retain our intellectual curiosity and energy, to allow us to tap into our passions and pursue our dreams.

As we struggle to retain this broken old industrial era system, we should turn our eyes to the future. We should seek to resolve the problems of the past and to celebrate the human spirit instead of enslaving it and pushing people to become automatons. To create a world where machines do the work of machines, and humans are free to pursue their dreams in a global society respectful of the environment, where education and intellectualism are paramount. To build a future where we can explore love for what it is, where we have time for friends and family, where we're free to be individuals, rather than indentured servants in a system we can and should grow beyond as a species. When humanity doesn't hold itself back, the sky's the limit for what we're capable of learning, understanding, and accomplishing. But when we insist on maintaining crumbling societal systems that don't serve the needs of the future and meaningful development of humanity - both as individuals and a species - onward, we're choosing self-destruction in the names of avarice and intellectual oppression. A society that ceases to keep reaching ever upward to the sky ultimately chooses to fall. And a society where people must struggle to achieve a decent standard of living is hardly one in any position to make meaningful progress. It's when people don't have to worry about standards of living that we're in the ideal place to move forward.

Okay, so this blog entry really didn't end up being shorter or "normal"-sized at all. In fact, since I started later than planned on Tuesday night, it's taken me a couple of nights to finish this one. (In the least, I scaled it back from the previous one, and those of you who weren't interested in the gaming one might find this an interesting read.) I feel like I've accomplished something worth my time, anyway.

I'll be getting that final Sane Gaming series post up within the next couple of days, and with that complete, you can look forward to a return to a more normal update schedule with even more of a variety to my ramblings and musings. Stay tuned!


CrazyCris said...

My mom used to state a fundamental difference between life in the US and life in Europe was that in the US "people lived to work" whereas in Europe "people worked to live".

I haven't lived in the US since I was a child, but from what I've observed via visits, conversations with friends and family there, newspapers, TV and movies... it seems like quite an accurate description. In the US if someone isn't pushing forward constantly to better their career, if they're just satisfied with getting by (but therefore having more time to spend with family or developing hobbies), then they're frequently considered a "failure". People need to wake up and realise that the purpose of living isn't a 9-5 desk job to pay the bills and get ahead. The joys and richness we get out of life come from our personal development, our interactions with people...

And from that latter is why I think most people would have a hard time with the life of a "true" hermit. We are social animals, and human contact is as necessary as breathing to most of us. Although I think a "temporary" hermit choice would be a good thing for many people. But I don't just mean staying at home and not seeing anyone but continuing with your usual routine. I mean really isolating themselves from their world without the distractions of TV, internet etc. To give them time to actually THINK about themselves, what they want, how can they get there, what's important to them.

Personally I've been leaning towards putting myself in that type of situation for some time to see if it will help me make up my mind on what to do with my life once the current phase I'm in is over (never-ending PhD). I just can't seem to bring myself to do it yet. As you say, it has to be willing.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Yeah, I'd have to say that's a definite fair assessment. There are certainly people here in America who look down on Europeans as "lazy" as a result too, in placing a higher value on more important things than obsessively working on a career. Obviously, theirs is not a mindset I agree with, personally.

Philosophically a big part of my life in wanting to be a writer is all about the passion for creating things of value - stories that entertain, provoke a broad range of emotional responses, and make statements throughout that might provoke people to think some. But part of the whole ideal in living that sort of life is also assertion of control over my own life, versus sacrificing my life to be some wage slave as we see as so important here in America. I want my life to be my own, as opposed to any company's. And I can't see the 9-5 grind as being anything but soul-crushing - it's not what I need, and it's not where I'd thrive. Neither that world nor I have any need of one another, while I've heard the call to reach people through my writing for most of my life. If I'm not growing and doing things for myself, it basically feels like the world's caving in around me.

And indeed, people need social interaction to survive. As much of a hermit as I can be, even I have my limitations there, since I still live with my family, still talk with friends fairly often via instant messengers and voice chat on Skype - a couple of my friends are off teaching English in Japan now - and have some semblance of a social life despite not seeing people in real life much beyond my family. As an introvert, I try to keep some kind of balance. But yeah, being completely alone can be crucial to valuable meditative introspection.

Ah, indeed, that'd undoubtedly make for an interesting and valuable experience. If you pursue it at some point, I wish you the best of luck with personal development as a result of it. But indeed, it's all about the divide between unwanted time alone and chosen, self-directed solitude.

Lindsay Champion said...

Wow, what an interesting post, thank you so much for writing it. I had no idea about the different categories in Japan and I found that very interesting. I guess I would consider myself the artistic freeter who tries to stay as far away from "what do you do?" conversations as possible. I do whatever I want, damn it!

I agree that everyone needs some kind of social stimulation. I have had a long history of people letting me down and I tend to write people off very easily these days. Sometimes it certainly seems easier to focus on myself than focus on spending time with these types of people. I am not the type of person that keeps lifelong friends.

After a long talk with my boyfriend (who is incredibly good at making lifelong friends and makes my handful of casual friends look pitiful), he has decided to not let me move in with him unless I make an effort to be social outside of the house, both with him and without him. I guess the Hemmingway idea is out the window. I think I can manage it, although I think I will have to go into it knowing that people are not perfect and will let me down eventually.

lindsay ||

Benjamin Fennell said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)

I started out intending to keep it simple, but once my mind really got going, I wanted to take more time to fully explore hermit/shut-in culture on a more international scale and look into the reasoning behind it. People don't seem to look at the issue all that often as is, and I think there's a lot to get out of this sort of subculture and this whole concept of rebelling against the traditional industrial/post-industrial society we live in that can't really sustain itself so well these days. I'm no fan of the idea of getting stuck in the hellish 9-5 cycle of working your life away just so you can spend money. It's so dehumanizing on so many levels.

I'm more or less like that myself - I want to eventually live on my writing and have the freedom to do whatever else I feel like, rather than just defining myself by going somewhere for most of the day for money and living that sort of repetitive existence. Though in lacking a lot of social ties, I'm definitely an overall hermit of sorts, though I've found a somewhat healthy way of balancing things so that I'm not entirely social life-less, and I get tons of time to be creative, pursue hobbies, work on projects, and generally introspect, living in my own head. I think living this way's really only come to help me know who I am, what I want in life and stand for, and to generally feel more comfortable in my own skin.

I can definitely relate to the letdowns. I've had no shortage of disappointment with people - which has fed the development of some rather deeply rooted trust issues and general misanthropy. But despite that, I've always contradictorily been a humanist by nature as well, so even as much as I tend to dislike and distrust people, I try not to treat them poorly, and do to what I can to bring out the best in those whose lives I can affect. I've got very few people I'd consider potential lifelong friends myself - my life's mostly been a matter of having one small subset of friends for so many years, then losing them and getting another. But I've had around a handful of friends since early college that I could see likely keeping in touch with in the long run. I'm fairly passive by nature, so people frequently walk away from friendships with me in the assumption that I'm not interested, in my not actively pursuing social interaction with them. Things tend to work a little better when friends figure that out about me and are willing to be more patient with me, as well as make a point of engaging me socially more often themselves, while still giving me my space. I'm a pretty complicated and difficult person to be friends with, I'm rather certain, haha.

Wow, quite an ultimatum from your boyfriend. Though to an ideally healthy end, obviously. It's definitely easy to fall into romanticizing the Hemingway way of life, though society today tends to look down on that - as it does anyone who isn't some kind of social butterfly. Good luck with all that, though. Definitely good to maintain a healthy level of cynicism, though I'd definitely recommend taking care that that cynicism doesn't turn into outright pessimism.