There is a natural breaking point in human connection, a borderline beyond which all goes slack, from which point the closer we are, the more distant we become. Intimacy is misunderstood as the elimination of all barriers and distance. In fact, it depends utterly upon the maintenance of natural distance. Intimacy exists in the tension between our need for distance and our willingness, ever so rare, to permit the barriers to be violated, just a little. The people to whom we may truly be said to be closest are those whom we have honored with a sort of standing invitation to trespass in our garden, a condition which is possible only as long as we remain the proper and sole owners of that garden.
Hence, intimacy dies in a world in which natural distance evaporates or is forcibly denied. Or one in which private property is regarded as theft, and hence trespassing reinterpreted as a right.
A student with whom I enjoy frequent correspondence notes the difference between her childhood, when her mother would chat with other mothers in the neighborhood, and her life in a large apartment complex today, in which no one speaks to anyone, even after making eye contact. “I sense the notion of neighbors is disappearing,” she observes. “We don’t know who is living next to my home, and don’t even say hi in the elevator. It is quite sad.”
I suppose we could say this is related to the general issue of intimacy. You can be intimate with a few people. You cannot be intimate with a hundred people, because the meaning of intimacy involves sharing something that you do not normally or easily share. In modern life, people are encouraged to expose everything about themselves to everyone (Instagram, Facebook, and so on), to have as many “romantic” relationships as possible, to have dozens or hundreds of “friends.” But this means there is less and less true intimacy. The surest way to kill intimacy is to make every relationship public, to keep people in groups, and to discourage privacy and secrets. Likewise, the surest way to kill “the notion of neighbors” is to crowd thousands of people together in a tight group, literally piling them on top of each other. That’s not a neighborhood, it’s an anthill. So the friendly interaction among people who see each other every day, or whose children play together at the park, disappears. There are just too many anonymous people around us all the time — jostling us, staring at us, crowding us, overhearing us — to notice or care about any of them individually. And because there are so many, and they are so casually presumptuous about our space (seeing it as their space), we tend to feel annoyed or threatened by them, rather than pleased to see them.
The abiding tension between privacy and self-revelation — the sense of human exposure and connection as a choice we are free to make, or to deny — has broken down, and with it the essential freedom of association which makes interaction pleasant and heartening.