Deterioration of human relations

Supportive relationships provide a buffer against life’s inevitable challenges

M Nadeem Nadir June 10, 2024
The writer is an educationist based in Kasur. He can be reached at


In his short story, Breakfast, John Steinbeck narrates his meeting with a family of highland area. The message of the story hangs midway unless the readers know the background. In the 1930s, the whole Europe and America were mired in the economic depression of the worst kind. The bankruptcy loomed large that the insolvent people were forced to eat the breadcrumbs to sustain themselves.

In this economic contagion, the narrator comes across a family of cotton pickers. They invite him to have breakfast with them. They even offer him to join them in cotton picking to earn for himself. He is impressed by their hospitality and large-heartedness in offering him breakfast and employment at a time when, due to stagnation of trade activities in America, none can afford to extend any help to anyone selflessly. The narrator can’t believe the empathy exuded by the ordinary toilers who should have been more worried about their financial security in the times of the Great Depression.

John Steinbeck emphasises the need for altruism for building strong relationships to weather the storms of untoward circumstances. The financial slump of American capitalism stands in a stark contrast to the inner contentment and selflessness of the country people.

Our present times experience the deterioration of human relations because of their foundation on capitalistic profit-or-loss undertones. Contrarily, to lay the foundation of our relationships on some higher good lends a mellow sweetness to us even if we are on the receiving end. Healthy relations demand willing suspension of self-interest.

Virginia Woolfe in her short story, The Duchess and the Jeweller, depicts the decadent times when the English aristocracy in the onerous days of the Second World War was nearing extinction and the business nouveau riche were rising. The Duchess to maintain her aristocratic patina sells her jewellery and souvenirs to a jeweller who rose to prominence from the position of the riff-raffs. The Duchess, who is now bankrupt financially and morally, starts foisting her fake jewellery on the jeweller.

In the beginning, the jeweller gets knowingly conned, but when the Duchess continues her trickery, he demurs in purchasing the ersatz jewellery. She plays her trump card by tempting him with her daughter. The jeweller, being a man of loose moral moorings, succumbs to the temptation and buys her faux jewellery.

Virginia Woolfe sums up the transactional human bonding: “They were friends, yet enemies; he was master, she was mistress; each cheated the other, each needed the other; each feared the other, each felt this.” Such relationships nurtured like William Blake’s “poison tree” are parasitic. Social entropy ensues, naturally.

Supportive relationships provide a buffer against life’s inevitable challenges. The dearth of connectedness creates a desert-like void within one’s soul, which then yearns for either human vicinity or obliteration of the existence itself. The present times of consumerism are conducive to turning people into islands. Eric Klineberg, a sociologist at New York University, says: “I think of loneliness as our bodies’ signal to us that we need better, more satisfying connections with other people.”

Man’s impatience with human imperfections and alloying human relations with selfishness are turning loneliness into a pandemic letting GPT-4o — the new model of ChatGPT designed to let people speak to it rather than type into it — capitalise on the lack of human connectedness. Human bonding with anthropomorphic gadgets, however, is unsatisfying, like in the 2013 movie, Her, in which a lonely introvert is seduced by a virtual assistant. The ominous thing is human relationships are turning mechanical.

The delayed happiness earned after bearing transient pain of self-abnegation is much greater and more durable than the instant self-gratification gained after hoarding one’s self-interest: the felicific calculus. Moreover, to use man as a utility is to debase humanity.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 10th, 2024.

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