It’s Your Choice

Isolation, capitalism, and learning lessons the hard way


in Ideas • Illustrated by Estelle Guillot


When I was studying philosophy in graduate school, a professor told us that the work of philosophy happens in conversation, that you have to try out your ideas with others, because in the effort it takes to articulate and re-articulate those ideas in the face of questions and challenges, your thoughts actually take shape and start to live in the world. What he was saying made sense to me, in theory. I can imagine myself earnestly agreeing at the time — of course, I would have copious conversations with my peers in some imaginary cafe or bar where we would surely gather on a regular basis, and I would feel confident and connected enough to share what I was thinking aloud. The reality played out quite differently. 

After working a couple of different day jobs in the Washington, D.C. area, I moved to London to attend grad school. After just a few weeks there I started to feel homesick for the first time in my life at the age of 25, despite not having a singular notion of a home place back in the U.S. for which to be sick. Up to that point, my primary experience of grappling to understand the world involved applying pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard, and only very rarely talking things out with others. I had been praised for my writing. I had even had some of it published and a few of my plays produced before making the decision to go back to school. But, as important as my writing habit was to shaping my reaction to this instruction, there was the fact that I grew up in an environment where a task-oriented approach to everything was not only valued, it was the primary way of living. So, despite this teacher sharing an important piece of the philosophical puzzle with me, I did what came naturally: I put my head down and tried to read and write my way through a philosophy degree. I fell into a deep loneliness for a solid chunk of my time there and tried to bandage over it by throwing myself into producing a play of mine in my last couple of months in the UK, while also working to finish my graduate thesis. 

This task-oriented approach to life is not uncommon among many born and raised in the U.S., and it’s undergirded by the persistent (despite so many personal attempts to break it), internalized belief that life is a meritocracy. That not only is good work rewarded, but also, good behavior, good presence, a good heart, a good look/body/smile/etc. The things we want must be earned, one way or another, and if you don’t earn them it’s because you don’t deserve them — this is how the world was framed for me. 

While writing this essay, I picked up a book titled Friendship as Social Justice Activism: Critical Solidarities in a Global Perspective, and found this sentence in the introduction (co-authored by editors Debanuj DasGupta, Jaime M. Grant, Niharika Banerjea, and Rohit K. Dasgupta), a thought I patently resist, particularly as a queer person keen to escape the heteropatriarchy, but in my weaker moments I will still find myself slipping towards it: “Capitalism, racism, sexism, ableism, and ageism, all collude to selling romantic attachment as the scarce and penultimate brass ring of life.” 

When I went through my teenage journals a couple of months ago, they were littered with evidence that I also internalized the message that friendship, not just romantic love, must be earned. If I could only figure out how to behave and speak in the right ways, prove myself interesting or worthy, people would like me. Of course, that jaundiced self-belief was also the result of the particulars of my upbringing, during which I moved and changed schools regularly, and, among other things, my home life was characterized by a need to abnegate my emotional needs. But this determined conversation with myself, where I sought to both explain and provide a solution to the problem of my isolation, was characterized by the kind of logic a mind invents when there is no one else with whom to compare notes and your only feedback is the distorted message you’re hearing from the world around you. 

There have been numerous articles and books penned about the growing state of loneliness in the United States today, and I know of at least one documentary on the subject. There’s the classic book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam, which points the finger at the loss of “third places” (social spaces that are neither home nor workplaces), and which continues to be referenced regularly in discussions of isolation. While writing a draft of this essay, an article appeared in The Guardian about a new social club opening in San Francisco and Los Angeles specifically intended to help people over the age of 30 combat loneliness. Among other things, the article references a May 2023 press release from the U.S. Surgeon General with the emphatic headline, “New Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States.” The article goes on to lay out the cost of being a member at this new start-up, because, of course, the only model we have here is to turn a problem into a gap in the marketplace. 

Any of us who made it through the first three years of the COVID-19 pandemic know how much challenge that experience introduced into relationships of all kinds, and for some those challenges have continued apace. I was out on a date with a woman a few weeks ago who told me she used to have a group of 12 friends who hung out regularly (a remarkable number for someone living in a large city like New York), but, in her words, “the pandemic broke us.” It was only this past summer and early fall, when my creative work saw me traveling away from home for over three months, that I started to realize just how much I had burrowed down into my apartment and routines after the personal and professional upheaval I experienced during those years. 

Leaving my home city, having both the need and desire to meet new people while I was away, opened me up to several warm and welcoming connections that felt wholly and completely different from my life back in Brooklyn, which felt a bit cold and cut off in comparison. The experience left me wondering to what extent my recent sense of isolation is down to me and to what extent it’s down to the world I occupy. 

As a dyke (I identify both my gender and sexuality this way) who has spent a lot of time thinking about queer people and their communities, particularly LGBTQ+ women and those adjacent to them, I’ve read a number of studies (examples 1 and 2) about the heavy impact of isolation on queer people, particularly as they age. However, these studies generally focus on the impact, not the causes. And, not surprisingly, the coverage of the issue in the popular media doesn’t really get there either. In digging around the internet, I came across a 2021 article in Cosmopolitan about loneliness among lesbians that reinforces so many of the wrong points; grinding old axes about the use of the term lesbian, pointing to low visibility, and only seeming to come close with a terse reference to misogyny. The author completely misses the fact that what queer women, along with so many others, are struggling with is how to meet and manage their basic needs, let alone, having the time and energy for sustaining connection, given that they face issues like pay disparities, professional limitations, fewer assets and a devaluation of the assets they have, poor medical care, the fact that many people continue to move in order to keep or chase jobs, or because they lost their housing or are seeking more affordable housing (there are numerous articles on this topic), and all the ways that these issues are complicated by the intersections of race, age, and ability, among so many other things. 

And, yet, even as someone who likes to believe I have some understanding of those realities, who has written about them, and even woven some of them into a film I made, I still, now well past my teenage years, find myself wondering to what extent I needed to change my behavior or myself in order to find the kind of connection I’m seeking. 

In talking with some of my close friends, the majority of whom now live outside of my home city, one suggested I should “institutionalize myself.” Forgiving the part of her double-entendre that references a non-existent accessible public mental healthcare infrastructure, the institution she intended for me to enter was academia. I’ve been encouraged in that direction on more than one occasion in my life, even on more than one occasion just in the past few months. In this case, my friend was reflecting on the friends she has who are in some ways similar to me and pointed out that not only do they all reside within academia in some capacity, they have also built their social lives there. 

On my side, I couldn’t help but think of the friends I have in academia and how exhausted they often appear. Maybe they’re finding the kinds of companionship I seek, I will have to ask them, but I suspect the different views she and I have into academia have something to do with the fact that we are 20 years apart in age — she is in her early 60s, and I’m in my early 40s. The friends closer in age to me who I see in academia generally came into a professional world where being an adjunct professor was far more common than a stable tenured job that would last into the future. As many people know at this point, adjuncting is a highly precarious existence, where people often cobble together multiple unpredictable gigs at an ever-changing roster of schools in order to make enough to pay rent and feed themselves, making it hard for me to believe they can build work-based friendships that would have the time and space to develop into something lasting or sustaining. Those I know who have managed to wrangle tenure-track jobs are still early enough in that process as to be constantly harried by significant teaching loads, the need to publish, and demands to serve out administrative duties that bog them down in bureaucracy and draconian office and institutional politics. When I brought up the question of friendships within academia to a friend a couple of years younger than me, her response went something like, they’re much more likely to cut you than to be your friends

I have watched as several acquaintances and friends who started off outside of academic enclosure have now stepped in. About a decade ago, I helped start a queer writing group that lasted for a few years. A couple of the members of the group were already within academia, but since we dispersed, I’ve seen a handful more move in that direction. While I can’t know for sure, I’m guessing some of the motivations might have included a desire not to feel bifurcated between wage earning work and creative work, wanting a different kind of income, wanting the idea of a more discernible path forward, and maybe also wanting more company in their creative work/ideas. I guess these particular motivations (which may be entirely untrue) are precisely because they are questions I’ve asked myself. 

Part of my refusal to enter academia is predicated on my own stubbornness (something that has stood in my way more times than I care to admit), but another part comes from the fact that I don’t have a terminal degree, which would stand in the way of getting most teaching jobs in higher ed. But I also cling to the elusive model offered by some of the writers and thinkers I admire most, who never went that way or intentionally chose to exit: Susan Sontag, Lorraine Hansberry (admittedly she died too young to know if she might have moved in that direction), Sara Ahmed, and Barbara Smith, to name just a few. 

About a week ago, I was exchanging audio messages with one of my friends who left New York City — a person my age who does the same thing creatively that she does to pay the bills. She was seeking a better quality of life in her move — better social connections were just one factor, cost and the general levels of challenge in putting a life together also being significant contributors, along with a latent desire to get away from the U.S. for at least a little while. She chose Amsterdam. It’s not any more expensive than New York City, the Dutch government welcomes American freelancers with a generous visa program (or at least it has for a while now — we’ll see under the new government), healthcare seemed less frightening and inaccessible, and she already had a couple of close friends living there. The choice made a lot of sense. 

When I said something in a message to her about the idea that maybe I just needed to try harder at connecting with people in New York City, she replied emphatically: ”It’s not you, it’s structural!” 

When I was a kid scribbling endlessly on just about every available piece of paper I could find, it was to keep myself company and to try to make sense of a nonsensical world. My motivations now aren’t wildly different. In my 20s there was a more pure kind of ambition fueling me, and so adding things to my resume, wanting to prove something, was a stronger force than it is now. While I can’t deny its presence to this day in some capacity, it’s too much work and cost to keep going just for that. And with the world cycling ever more rapidly from one crisis to the next, it’s harder to maintain the clear sense of momentum from one day to the next that a fiercely held ambition requires. 

I don’t read books, attend lectures, and go see other’s creative work in order to sit quietly in my apartment with their thoughts, I do it because I’m searching. I’m searching for answers, for solace, for company, for relief, for some sense of what it means to be human, for some sense of how to resolve the ordinary and extraordinary horrors of humanity, for rage, tenderness, escape, presence. And in my own work, I’m also searching, often searching to take apart the false ideas driving me that I didn’t even realize were driving me. But if I had to lay out my motivations in less abstract terms, they are not altogether lofty. I make work because I want to learn or understand something a bit better; to share some version of that learning with others with the hope that the sharing might be useful or help to resist a culture that dehumanizes so many, and, in the process, to talk to people, to feel things, and, ideally, find someone cute to make out with. 

I remember speaking with a fellow writer and filmmaker at a residency many moons ago about the need to say no to our friends when they asked us if we wanted to go out. We both had day jobs, and so the time available to do the work we wanted to do was limited — we chose our creative work instead of our social lives. We were choosing one instead of the other. 

But there’s something about the notion of choice that feels worth pausing on. Choice is often presented as if the options were equal. On that date with the woman who had a large group of friends before the pandemic, we spoke about a project she was working on related to the question of when and how to have children. The conversation made me reflect on my own relationship to that particular question. I’m happy to have reached an age where it is extremely unlikely that I will bear my own children, but if I ask myself how my “choice” not to have children was shaped, the story has more to do with my impression of life as a mother being a trap I was terrified of falling into, that I would never be able to do the things I wanted to do in my life if I became a mother. I’m not presenting this childhood perception in order to castigate mothers (who frankly get enough castigation in our society already), but rather to express how intensely I felt and believed this as a young person based on the information I was receiving at the time. Learning and thinking through the world was how I got through an otherwise isolated childhood, and that translated into a committed belief that somehow I would find my usefulness in the world there. I was the first person assigned female at birth in my mother’s line to have the chance to finish college, and in my father’s line, my cousin was the only such person with a degree. And yet, I also knew that saying this out loud would likely be a painful reminder to those who came before me, not a badge of honor for myself, which is why I have never shared this fact publicly before this moment. It is never as simple as choosing between equal options, and I remain grateful that I had a choice, imbalanced as it may have been. 

There’s another quote in Friendship as Social Justice Activism that stood out to me, from the writer and activist Susan Raffo: “Very simply, individuals cannot heal alone any more than we can guarantee our basic needs ourselves.” 

Mutual aid is a term that gets used a lot in lefty circles. It’s something that came up in practice in my life, outside of friendship and romantic partnership, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and the surrounding area, as well as during the pandemic. And it’s also come up in caretaking for fellow queers and elders in my life who do not have many, if any, people to ask for help when navigating medical issues or crises. But outside of a crisis, it can feel a bit fuzzier as a practice. 

One of my favorite real-world examples of mutual aid is the story a lesbian in her 80s told me during an interview for my first film. Born Jean Boudreaux but known for much of her life as Shewolf, she was a central figure in the networking and development of lesbian land projects across the U.S.. In her later years, she regularly encouraged lesbians (myself and my film crew included) to move to her little corner of northern Florida, where many landyke communities were tucked into the swamps and tiny towns that scattered the area outside of Gainesville. As an avid woodworker with a modest home and workshop of her own, she knew a number of women in the area who lived by themselves, and so she organized a regular event (I believe it was once every other week) whereby women in the group would show up at the house of one of the group members, everyone would bring food (what’s a lesbian event without a potluck), and then group members would help the person whose home it was to do tasks she couldn’t complete by herself — basic house repairs, moving things that were too heavy, clearing something in the yard, anything that wasn’t possible alone. It was a model not totally dissimilar from the women’s lending circles that are popular across the Latin American diaspora, but the thing being lent in this case was company and labor. In either case, the groups create a supportive space in which to admit that we cannot manage everything on our own, they provide friendship, and they also provide practical help where it’s needed. 

We need so many things as a society in order to come together, the list of ills is something we all know so well at this point, and I’ve touched on many of them already in this essay. But one thing I will note here is a point that art historian and activist Dr. Flavia Rando raised in my first film. It was a point that jumped off from a question about marriage rights becoming a dominant issue among many LGBTQ+ activists for a time, but ultimately her focus was on something much larger. She was speaking about the fact that when your modes of being have been incorporated into the marketplace that is the heart of U.S. capitalism, “lives are privatized and political action is effectively curtailed.” Capitalism teaches us, and many of us internalize, the lesson that the solution to our problems is individual, a private problem with a private solution, and ideally, the solution can be purchased (i.e., earned), or, if isn’t currently purchasable, it can be invented and then sold for a handy profit. Dr. Rando’s point was that this framework cuts us off from the actual help we need — collectively building an understanding that our problems are not individual; understanding not only just how much we need each other, but also that collective action will be the solution. We humans are primates, after all — among the most social animals living on Earth. Recognizing that our fates are fundamentally tied up together in both the seemingly endless crises we are facing and in the ordinary churn of living has to be a guiding principle. Self-sufficiency is a lie with deadly consequences. As has been said by many in various forms over the years, no one is free until all of us are free, and at least one small piece of that is seeking freedom from any notion that we must earn that liberty alone. We don’t need equity just because it’s the right thing to do, we need it because increasing inequity and the othering and alienation at its root are driving us away from one another to devastating effect, and it’s not impacting only one particular oppressed or marginalized group or another, it is impacting all of us, including those of great privilege and power.•


Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. Recent work includes a documentary film, All We've Got, which examines LGBTQ women's communities and spaces across the US, and the podcast, The Answer is No, which highlights artists sharing stories about challenging the conditions under which they are asked to work. Her writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian, Salon, Hyperallergic, Bitch Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and Nature, among others.