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  • jinhyun shin

Loneliness: The Blinking Red Light

One of my biggest fears is not being enough. I've refined it over years of my life. It started as a kid when I followed the Korean customs: 2 instruments, sports, leadership and A's. Somehow, I managed to find success across most of it  (I failed to meet the standard on grades). There were accolades and recognition for my efforts at the time, but nothing has stuck with me in a more meaningful way than the fear of not being enough.


Asian kids, we learn not being enough through shame, and we learn it early. Ask any grade school kid "How could you?" and you'll get a blank stare. Ask over and over, and it sets into the bones. "How could you participate in a piano recital without practicing more?" "How could you show up to practice without having watched the recording of your last practice?" "How did you miss the Talented and Gifted assessment test (in second grade)?" (Was that last one just me?)


This all boils down to, "What could that do to us? Don't you care how it makes us look?!" - Translation: Failing to be the your best is evidence you haven't tried hard enough. So, I pursued being the best at everything I did so that my parents couldn't point out that I could do better. It was the clearest defense I had to doing and being enough.


This is the Iron Fist. Going generations back, all east Asians know it. Productivity leads to success. Korea has a third of the surface area of Arizona, was one of the 10 poorest countries in the world following the Korean war in 1953, and became a top 20 global economy by 1985. Japan is the size of Montana, got nuked in 1945, and has been a top 5 global economy since the mid-1960s. No country has lifted more people out of poverty in a shorter period of time than China has. (Plenty of Asians know the Iron Fist, but let me just point to three East Asian ones.) History says the Iron Fist is the best and safest way to a prosperous life. Always do your best, and rest when you can convince yourself that the end justifies the means.


Later in life, I was surprised to hear people who didn't look like me echo that sentiment of not being enough. It was first from my girlfriends who talked about the cacophony of expectations. Then, my guys who talked about the uncertainty of not doing enough in their lives. At first, it made me think less about my feelings of not being enough because I thought that was normal. But the more I listened, the more I realized they were speaking to a different part of my experience. In America, you can be anything you want to be, but it's up to you to figure out how.


I think inferring how much is enough is analogous to the journey of a stand up comedian. At first, you're funny to your friends. Then, someone encourages you to try stand up comedy claiming that you're the funniest person they know. Curious, you give it a shot and come up with five minutes of material. You decide to perform your routine for a week. A few nights you get some laughs while others get a lot. Some nights get no laughs and you don't care how others did. One night, you had the top tier of laughs. You reflect on how it went and how much you enjoyed being funny to your friends, and suddenly someone compliments you for "living the dream life" as a courageous comedian. The invisible hand is encouraging, but it has no guiderails on how to assess being enough.


To no surprise, the pressure of seeking enough is leading to somewhat similar results. Never in American history has their been more millionaires, or has the economy ever been larger. Productivity is leading to greater wealth, but it's time we all have a serious look at whether the means justify the ends. Amidst warnings from Quiet-Quitting, Work-From-Home Burnout and Zoom Fatigue, the suicide rate steadily rises. I can't ignore a pattern I see in its rise alongside the cultural pressure to prioritize productivity.


Last spring, Korea announced they're paying lonely people to "re-enter society" to prevent the risk of a "lonely death". (If you see paying people as an incentive to not be alone has a grotesque parallel to incentivizing productivity, I'm frowning with you, but that's a conversation for another time.) A lonely death is "the phenomenon in which people with no relatives die alone and remain undiscovered for a certain period of time. It is also called solitary or unattended death." Translation - no one will claim to know them. Why is it so hard for a country that is so robust and technologically advanced to address what's causing their people so much pain? Then again, how honest is anybody about the emotional pain they are going through?


There's something that gives me hope, here, in the U.S. I first saw it when Dr. Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General, raised the alarm on the loneliness epidemic. What does this mean? Loneliness is when you feel that your experience and its underlying feelings disqualify you from belonging. The epidemic manifests by disconnecting us from our communities and starving our need for social interaction. On a micro level, this feeling is terrible and really hard to talk about. But on a macro level, Dr. Murthy calling out this feeling gives me hope because we have a word to describe what Korea is only now using to triage one of the highest suicide rates in the world. But it's only useful if we are willing to acknowledge it.


Whether the Iron Fist is beating you, or the Invisible Hand is pushing you - Loneliness is the blinking red light of prioritizing productivity above the value we get from being with our friends. It's warning us that exhausting ourselves doing is hurting our nature of being. How do I know? Let me show you. I dare you to knock on someone's door this month and show up with a box of pizza and/or a board game "just to be with them". If they don't ask "what's wrong?", you win. If they do, you can blame me for sending you to break the tension. Either way, two months from now, I can guarantee they won't say "I really wish you hadn't come over to just be with me."


Please, tell someone when you are feeling lonely. Take a look at the loneliness statistics in the U.S. Over half of adults in the U.S. report feeling at least a little lonely. But 94% of adults believe that suicidality can be stopped. This is something we can stop. I'll write a more hopeful message with strategic steps to try soon, but I've cried too much writing this to write any more. Please, receive my pleas.


P.S. For those of you that are wondering, my parents and I are great. They're supporting me with all the love they can to be a mental health entrepreneur. They tell me often that they are proud of me, and the pressure is nothing more than firm, long hugs.



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