“I wouldn’t go so far as saying I’m atheist! Those guys are always so angry”, my friend had told me in his truck in the middle of Nowhere, Wyoming a few years back. “Are they?” I replied, “I actually haven’t met any like that. Honestly, in the world of religion, atheists have got to be the most ostracized I’ve ever met. Every religion looks down on atheists or feel superior over them; they’re the nonbelievers. But I haven’t seen them angry- I’ve seen them more understanding.
They’re the only ones that believe when you die, you die. There’s no next incarnation, or happy world where your late mother and grandfather dwells, no fire n’ brimstone and no ghosts. It’s just over, that’s it. So, they’re the only ones I know that really live for today because there may never be another one for them…forever. And because they don’t believe in gods or angels or saints, then the only entity they can put their faith into is themselves and their fellow humans. So, if they’re angry, they’re angry for other reasons.” Though, in afterthought, the anger he’s apparently witnessed, might be the result of loneliness from feeling ostracized by other religious people. Colin Killeen published an article in 1998 on the varying effects of loneliness. In the article, he stated that “loneliness is a condition that describes the distressing, depressing, dehumanizing, detached feelings that a person endures when there is a gaping emptiness in their life due to an unfulfilled social and/or emotional life.” Remember, not all Naturalistic Pagans are adults living in an affluent society among forward-thinking friends and peers. Some might be teenagers living in an oppressed, Abrahamic household- not able to freely speak and express their thoughts and beliefs. Or maybe they’re living alone and lacking friends. And now, loneliness might not just be an emotional change, it could be a physical one, as well.
At the Society for Neuroscience on November 4th, scientists reported that the brains of mice degenerate after just a month of isolation. Neurobiologist Richard Smeyne from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, along with his colleagues, raised communities of multiple generations of mice in large enclosures packed with toys, mazes and things to climb. When a few of the animals reached adulthood, they were removed and individually placed in their own, smaller cages. The abrupt switch from complex society to pure isolation induced architectural changes in the brain. After 30 days, the overall size of their neurons shrunk by 20 percent and remained at this size over an additional two months. However, during this first month of isolation, the mice’s neurons had a higher density of spines- structures for making neural connections- on message-receiving dendrites. This is usually translated as something positive is occurring but in this case, “it’s almost as though the brain is trying to save itself,” Smeyne said. After the third month, the density of dendritic spines decreased back to baseline levels because the brain had realized it cannot save itself when faced with continued isolation. Furthermore, the isolated mice also had reductions in a protein called BDNF, that spurs neural growth. Their stress hormone known as cortisol also changed, and they had more broken DNA in their neurons. It is not yet known if these results also occur in humans, but people do experience mental changes, such as depression, anxiety and psychosis during long-term isolation. They also develop problems reasoning, remembering, and navigation and have a higher risk of cardiovascular complications and mortality.
Colin Killeen had also explained in his article in 1998 that alienation and estrangement are the most negative senses of loneliness. Feeling alienated means that an individual feels different from the people or society surrounding them. Now, Colin’s article was focused more toward elderly patients in hospitals, but I believe this viscerally negative feeling of alienation or abandonment can occur with people that are incarcerated as well as homeless- especially with those who have medical needs and no access to medication or therapy. As if it’s not enough feeling this despair under these situations or for not sharing the same beliefs as your peers and society, the Holidays can bring on an even more intense level of loneliness for certain individuals. When people have been disowned by their families, lost their families, live too far to travel or are unable to travel, or because of their living situation (prison, homelessness, rehabilitation facilities, etc), then the “Happiest Time of the Year” becomes a cruel irony. Loneliness also inhibits our social functions that often develop defensive coping mechanisms that make it difficult for them to create new connections with others or deepen existing ones. This makes it hard during the Holidays for them to reach out to friends or peers due to their feeling of rejection. This leads to pessimistic and defeatist outlooks and to be skeptical as to whether others are interested in them or care about them. Thus eventually, some lonely people remain alone during the Holidays even when they don’t have to be.
So, as the Holidays approach and you’re getting more consumed at work, buying presents, scheduling parties and school events, and cooking; just remember, there are others out there that may not feel as loved as you do. And whether they are feeling alienated from being Naturalistic Pagans within a dogmatic community, or they’re homeless, in a nursing home, incarcerated, or just feeling alone, they are human beings just like you and me. And all humans deserve the feeling of love, appreciation, intimacy, and laughter. If our brains’ neurons physically decrease in size and our bodies begin to shut down and give up because of sudden isolation and alienation, just think how effective and powerful a simple hug with shared intimacy can do. And then think how much you can change someone’s entire life just by being their friend.
Happy Holidays from me to you, my beautiful Naturalistic Pagans! This is a time to share with your loved ones, so keep your hearts open to make new ones because you never know how much you might benefit someone else’s life, including your own.
Kansas Stanton is a Neo-Pagan who resides in Seattle, Washington. He belongs to, and practices with, a local group of Reform Pagans and blogs at https://leavesontheroad.wordpress.com/. He also volunteers every year at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle and regularly attends various Pagan festivals and events.
He is a full-time student, earning his degree in Environmental Science and a Certificate in Sustainability, after which time he will move on to grad school (climate science). When Kansas is not in class or working his job in the art industry, he also attends heavy metal concerts both locally and internationally. He is also a vegan outdoorsman who frequents the trails and whitewater rivers of the pacific northwest and loves to spend his time with friends over a cold, dark beer.