Pete Brook on Loneliness

Pete Brook
Photo of Pete Brook taken at Donner Summit, California, July 2016. © Jack Jeffries.

1. How can one enjoy time on one's own?

Well, we must. People aren’t always around and ultimately, you need to use time on your own to grow calmer and more insightful about the world and your place in it. Sounds simple but it’s a hell of a challenge. Use the time on ones own to know yourself, and to know your thoughts. Without wanting to get too armchair-Buddist, being alone is the best time to be present with your thoughts; to recognize them as thoughts and to reconcile them with external reality and observations. Anxiety comes from the tension between your thoughts/associated emotions and what you perceive as external to yourself. Hold that anxiety, understand why it might be there. Similarly, embrace your other, more positive, emotions. Breathe.

2. Tell me about the loneliest you've ever felt.

Predictably, after a break-up. I should’ve seen the break-up coming but I didn’t. Shock on top of isolation. And then there’s a process of grieving that needs to occur. I wanted to be alone during that, so I drove out to the mountains, without a plan, so I could just be with my thoughts. After a few days, I realized I needed to be around people so I looped round to crash on friends couches and sob into their home-cooked meals.

3. Was it enjoyable loneliness?

It was not that enjoyable but it was necessary and I was looking to the future as opposed to allowing the tough emotions of that present to swallow me up. Nothing is ever so messed up as you imagine. The loneliness was just a stage of a process.

4. How did you cope with the isolation of moving to America for the first time?

Moving to America never felt isolating. I’d visited and studied many times before I made the move. I had a community already. Leaving family in the UK was always going to be hard. Still is.

5. How about on returning from your PCT sojourn?

The Pacific Crest Trail is an experience in which your are forced to take care of the simple things: food, water, physical health, a comfortable place to sleep. There’s other experiences out there that do this, but the PCT was just the one I did. On the trail, everything becomes routine and you need routine so that the hike is as absent of discomfort as possible. You get up, pack you bag and start walking. Repeat. It’s pure in its simplicity. Very different to the “normal” world.

The return to society wasn’t isolating, but it was disorienting. Without realizing, I had developed a sensitivity to the artificial. Neon was an assault. Advertising imagery was as strange as ever. Trump and Clinton were going at each other and their political theatre was so far removed from what I had in my hands, what I had in my head, and what I identified as truth and as grounding fact. We’re distracted by salesmanship, click-bait, 2-for-1 offers, celebrity worship, social “channels”, Netflix channels. It’s all snake oil. We actually need very little, but we’re bombarded with so much and it is, unfortunately, all pretty insubstantial. If leaving the trail was isolating it was because I felt that maybe many others didn’t see or feel the world in the way I did. And yet, I was welcomed into the homes of many friends. There, I reflected and readjusted in supportive company.

Pete Sketch
One of Pete's sketches from the PCT.

6. The Internet makes us more connected and more isolated at the same time. Do you agree?

I agree, but with qualification. When a screen offers endless stories, wants, searches, shopping and snooping, it is going to suck users in. Looking at the Internet less as a sap of energies, though, we can identify extremely positive uses that don’t assault ones self-esteem. I think passive uses of the Internet can engender isolation and loneliness. By contrast, the Internet can allow ones creativity to flourish, and provide a voice and platform. I read a great piece about a queer teenager in middle America who was able to connect with other marginalized youth in far away cities; Tumblr gave him a sense of being not alone and a sense that there was a place for him in the world. The Internet is a tool which can be hugely beneficial if one uses it well, but it’s also full of “empty calories” just like TV. It’s too reductive to say that the Internet has an inherent double character that is both connective and alienating. Rather it’s character depends on how consciously and mindfully we use it. Do we control it or does it control us? We hear a lot about algorithms and how they’re tweaked and ever-more sophisticated to “know” us and provide us with links we’re more likely to click. This is commerce in play. What else do we expect? Algorithms are a real problem when they serve up material to confirm our existing biases. We saw this no more than in the recent US election cycle when Facebook users deemed conservative or liberal faced news feeds that were populated by news and opinion pieces to satisfy their extent political views. Here dialogue breaks down. It was once hoped that the Internet would be free of human manipulation—a pure, unadorned and horizontal platform to assist the best urges and inclinations of human users. This was the ideal and alas it has not come to pass. Gone are the days.

One last thing, a recent study showed that faster Internet has the effect of making people more partisan, which I’d describe as more culturally isolated. In attempts to reduce the digital divide, the Obama administration installed fibre optics and high speed Internet in rural communities. University research teams were able, therefore, to study the Internet habits of users before and after. They found that users quickly gravitated toward content that fit with their world view. Instead of using the infinite possibilities of the Internet to broaden their worldview and to seek out hitherto inaccessible info, they in fact narrowed their consumption; they concentrated their web diet to sources and stories saying the same things. Human nature? Maybe. But a bit depressing.

7. If we are more connected to each other are we necessarily more isolated from our environment?

No. The logic in that binary fails. For example, the protestors at Standing Rock are connected in profound, spiritual solidarity. They’re fully aware of, and listening to, the earth. The future of everything depends on nurturing people and the environment in tandem.

That said, when I was on the PCT (and before) I observed a troubling dichotomy held by many environmentalists that distinguishes unnecessarily between people and environment. The thinking goes that the environment is pure, humans have fucked it up; that humans are careless at best, craven polluters at worst. Some folks who identify strongly with environmental issues (which could be something as ordinary as being a keen weekend hiker) tend to scorn others who don’t value pastimes or adventures in nature. There’s a troubling superiority complex and insularity that can develop among outdoorsy people who consider themselves environmentalists. It’s as if social justice fights—prison reform or abolition fights, for example—are secondary to the fight for the earth. This is a myopic hierarchy. I don’t believe one precedes or bests the other. Being kind to ourselves is the same as being kind to our neighbors is the same as being considerate of all humans is the same as being good custodians of our planet. Inquire deep enough in these struggles and you find the need for love and the fact of a root compassion. Isolation and faction has no place in the search for justice.

One final thing, the territory where environmental and social justice struggles intersect is so very exciting. It’s the frontier of progressive politics in many ways. The movement against environmental racism points out that it is America’s poorest communities, disproportionately communities of colour that live beside toxic superfund sites and suffer the exposure to the dirty air and water byproducts of mills and refineries. In my field, the Prison Ecology Project is addressing damage from sewage and industrial waste unleashed by overpopulated and under-regulated prisons into to water ways. This is a fight for the health of the prisoners inside, the towns and cities that are home to prisons and for the greater health of our nation. Often the construction and operation of prisons in remote, environmentally-sensitive rural areas goes relatively unregulated. Prisons get a pass because they bring jobs.

8. Do you think that isolating someone from society is ever a good idea?

Very rarely is longterm confinement beneficial — not for the prisoner and not for society. Prisons don’t make us safer. Putting someone in extreme isolation is almost never a good idea. Solitary confinement makes people go mad and it can alter brain chemistry in as little as three days.

Confinement can, in some cases, provide conditions and control to allow people to detox and return to a base-line, the start of a tough process of reconnecting with reality and with their bodies, but such confinement is only a short-term requirement. I also want to make clear that prisons and jails are not the best place for detox, and yet we use them to lock up people with addiction. We need to think of addiction as a public health matter, not a criminal matter.

At the end of the day, we’re social beings and we need to be around others. Enforced isolation is extremely damaging. Juan Mendez, Special Rapporteur to the United Nations, said that anything over 15 days in solitary amounts to torture.

9. Who is/was the loneliest person you met doing your prisons project? Can anything be done to help him/her?

Not for me to say. Prisons are toxic and they degrade the spirit of any one who is inside.

That said, I’ve met some incredibly lonely people who are locked up but they know they only have themselves to rely on and in spite of the system, hold it together and do immense good. I’ve seen prisoners mentor, educate and counsel other prisoners. They do so because they feel and live the isolation. Incredibly, they can contain that struggle and frustration and turn it into something powerful and good and community-building. I’m thinking here of prisoners who teach remedial math, Spanish, life skills and coping strategies to other, usually younger, prisoners.

Nigel Poor
Image by Nigel Poor.

10. Is the future of prison more or less lonely?

Prisoners know that they must organize to survive. They will continue to improve one another provided the system doesn’t pit them against one another in pressure-cooker facilities. When basic security is provided, I’ve seen remarkable acts of charity and fraternity among prisoners. So that’s there. The greatest threat of increasing loneliness comes from the attitudes and interactions among those on the outside. We cannot forget that the United States incarcerates more people, as a free society, than any other nation in the history of mankind. We must recognize that the American Gulag is a man-made thing. If we isolate ourselves from those truths then we will abandon millions to warehousing, boredom and wasted potential. If we ignore the political and economic underpinnings to the Prison Industrial Complex we are lying to ourselves and each other. The opposite of isolation is the hard recognition that we are together in solving this human rights crisis within our own borders.

11. How do you feel about drone warfare, and the lonely soldier calling the shots from a continent away?

Oh God, so much, but I’m not an expert. Depending on which reports you read that soldier is either intensely depressed or comfortably compartmentalized in how she or he goes about their work. Although there is evidence that drone operators suffer from the same stress disorders actual military pilots do. I actually don’t think we have, as a culture, come to appreciate the nature of drone warfare nor how much it has shaped our military strategy. The ethics of it are crazy. Image-based art such as Lisa Barnard’s ‘Whiplash Transition and Tomas Van Houtryve’s ‘Blue Sky Days’ help us along in the conversation.

12. When you feel like being alone what do you like to do?

Go for a run. Meditate. Read.

13. Isolation has pretty negative connotations - is this fair?

This is where language gets interesting. Isolation suggests something enforced by another. Solitude on the other hand connotes something more spiritual. I’d say enforced isolation rightly has negative connotations, but seeking solitude for oneself can be enlightening. It depends on the circumstances of being alone.

I guess I’d like to say, in closing, that many people are afraid of solitude. Once we hop off the fast-moving-society-train, things can unravel quickly. While I was hiking the PCT, I realized that much of what I did (particularly online) on a daily basis was unnecessary busy-work. It’s scary to admit where we might be just running on a wheel. Equally, it’s challenging to think of new ways in which we can engage the world and be a force for good. Isolating ourselves and putting everything on the table for reassessment is a means to know ourselves. In that sense isolation is a positive thing.