It’s Dangerous to Go Alone!

A meme showing a tiny black kitten held in the palm of a hand with the text "It's dangerous to go alone.  Take this with you."

Bear with me here. The meme is old, but I’m just catching up. I ran across this version the other day. A little research showed that it is a much older meme referencing a moment in the 1986 video game Legend of Zelda. Link, the main character runs into an old man, who tells him this and hands him a sword. Of course, the cat-obsessed internet put a fuzzy spin on it at some point.

As with all successful memes, there is something deeper here. We only need to look to mythology and the hero’s journey story arc to know that humans have always known that they have to face some things alone. Sometimes a hero starts a quest alone and finds a mentor and friends along the way. Always she has to face the final test alone. And the adventures and quests of the hero’s journey are ultimately metaphors for our own growth and development throughout life.

A screen shot from the 1986 video game Legend of Zelda showing the main character Link in a curiously rectangular cave.  An old man stands between two fires, and offers Link a sword.
The original screen in the video game Legend of Zelda.

So humans are all familiar with going alone. Whether it is our first day of kindergarten, our SATs, a new job, a physical challenge on the playground, or on one of many adult versions of the playground, we’ve all gone into something by ourselves. And some part of us, which we resolutely do our best to ignore as adults, recognizes the power of a talisman in these situations.

Young children often want to bring a toy with them to school or any other situation where they are out in the world. As adults, we forget that this isn’t really about having something to play with. Instead, the little stuffed toy, or blankie, or action figure is a symbol of the most familiar parts of life. It reassures us that there is a place in the world where we know what to expect, where we are loved, and where we are grounded. It is an object that connects us to no less than who we are. That’s why it is so devastating when it is inevitably lost. Having that reminder gives us the power to shape the less predictable world we are venturing into. The action figure gives the child the power to create new friendships in school. The magic sword gives the hero the power to defeat monsters and render the world safe for domesticity.

So this meme resonates with something buried pretty deep in the human psyche. But I would argue that it has more appeal now than perhaps at other times in our history. In January of 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a Minister of Loneliness for the UK. In 2010 the AARP conducted a survey that indicated that 35% of people aged 45 or over were lonely in the US. According to the 2010 census, around a quarter of adults in the US live alone.

This information comes just as we start to understand the negative impact that loneliness and social isolation can have on our health. Take this from an Americal Psychological Association press release:

To illustrate the influence of social isolation and loneliness on the risk for premature mortality, Holt-Lunstad presented data from two meta-analyses. The first involved 148 studies, representing more 300,000 participants, and found that greater social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death. The second study, involving 70 studies representing more than 3.4 million individuals primarily from North America but also from Europe, Asia and Australia, examined the role that social isolation, loneliness or living alone might have on mortality. Researchers found that all three had a significant and equal effect on the risk of premature death, one that was equal to or exceeded the effect of other well-accepted risk factors such as obesity.

“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” said Holt-Lunstad. “With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ The challenge we face now is what can be done about it.”

It is, indeed, dangerous to go alone.

So, maybe, in 2020, this is a meme that should make us ask ourselves what talismans we need to take with us into the future, to give us the power to build socially connected lives. And, when it comes to that, a kitten isn’t such a bad strategy. In our modern world, a dog or cat may do more to keep us literally physically safe than any weapon we can buy.

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