"The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness.... is
the central and inevitable fact of human existence" – novelist Thomas Wolfe
I’ve been tempted to write something about human loneliness ever
since I read an interview in an American newspaper with an individual who earned
his living by hiring himself out as best man at the weddings of couples who had
He had already stood up at 60 such nuptials that year, he
told the interviewer, proudly.
Reassuring as it was that those 120
individuals had at least found each other, the idea of them having existed so
starkly alone until then was quite shocking.
There was material on the
subject; loneliness has been characterized as a universal condition. But to
write a column about it? Several starts I made went nowhere.
What was the
obstacle? Was it the fear that readers would think I was writing
autobiographically? And even supposing I was, why “fear,” if loneliness is
simply “a part of being human” – a phrase that came up over 53,000 times when I
searched Google? It seems that many people will go to great lengths to avoid
admitting they are lonely; because for them, loneliness carries a stigma. As if
the sadness of it weren’t enough, they see their loneliness as a reason for
shame."Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of
being alone, and the word solitude to express the glory of being alone"
theologian Paul Tillich (1886- 1965)
IT IS, of course, important to
differentiate between different kinds of aloneness; and clearly, the kind that
is called solitude can be satisfying – perhaps even glorious. Think of the
person alone amid nature who feels him- or herself a part of its harmony. He or
she feels replete with a rich sense of belonging.
The chronically lonely
individual emphatically does not. At best, he or she struggles with “a sort of
wistfulness that is almost a pain inside” – as one lonely blogger put it; at
worst, with a wretched feeling of emptiness and alienation.
“I often feel
as if my inside was being slowly drawn out through a syringe,” someone once told
me unforgettably, in a rare moment of candor. “It’s an almost exquisite
BUT WHAT provided the impetus for this column is the sense of
shame that frequently attaches to loneliness. It seems like such an unfair added
burden. Why does it exist? The answer, I think, goes something like this: “I am
lonely,” reasons the lonely person, consciously or subconsciously, “because I
have not been able to connect meaningfully with another.
The result is
that I am unloved. And if no one loves me, it must mean I don’t deserve to be
Who will admit to being unworthy of love? Even though the lonely
individual’s reasoning is very likely faulty, the accompanying sense of shame
can be very real.
In our Western society, which puts so much stress on
“togetherness” of every kind, the appearance of lacking love can feel like
something that needs to be hidden at all costs – rather like the “genteel poor”
of a century ago, who would darn their stockings, patch their coats, stitch
their frayed cuffs, scrimp, save and do anything rather than confess to their
lack of means.
They’d have died of shame.
‘THERE IS,” reflects
Torah scholar and philosopher Avivah Zornberg, “something about modern culture
that makes it a disgrace to be lonely. Everything in society puts the highest
value on being part of a couple, part of a crowd.
And yet there is a kind
of universal experience of being alone, even for those in
“Maybe,” she offers, “people are so afraid of that
knowledge that they sheer away from someone who is obviously lonely – otherwise
they would have to acknowledge the loneliness in themselves. They take shelter
in their gregariousness.
“There have been other cultures, in other places
and at other times, that valued the lone person,” she muses. “Our culture could
be kinder in its ways of looking at people.”
Is it, then, the lonely
person who keeps distant from meaningful social interaction – or modern society
that, as Zornberg implies, “sheers away” from that person? And could there be
something about loneliness that is injurious to others? A STUDY published in the
December 2009 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology went so
far as to suggest that loneliness is contagious.
Data collected from more
than 4,000 people over 10 years found, in the words of University of Chicago
psychologist John Cacioppo, who led the study, that “loneliness can be
transmitted across people – even people you don’t have direct contact
He cited clues to how this can happen: People who feel lonely tend
to act in negative ways toward those they do have contact with, perpetuating
both the behavior and the emotion.
Which might be what led the late
comedian and social critic George Carlin to advise: “Keep only cheerful
“No man is an island,” concluded Harvard Medical School’s
Nicholas Christakis, who helped conduct the research. He told The Washington
Post‘s Rob Stein: “A person’s emotions can have a collective existence and
affect the vast fabric of humanity.”
(Previous studies by Christakis and
political scientist James Fowler had concluded that obesity, the likelihood of
quitting smoking, and even happiness could spread from one person to another.)
Moreover, reported Stein, the researchers found that “people who become lonely
eventually move to the periphery of their social networks, becoming increasingly
isolated – which can exacerbate their loneliness and affect social
Several experts commented that the study’s findings
underscored the importance of social networks.
ALL WELL and good. But
Internet social networking sites, which have become so wildly popular and
pervasive, may not be the antidote to loneliness and isolation.
MySpace user was quoted in an online critique as saying: “I had 1,247 friends
listed on my profile page. Problem was, they weren’t really friends at
I was still as lonely as hell.”
The networking site, the
critique went on, “sucked her into a vortex where friendship is a numbers game
and most friends are FINOs – friends in name only.”
Clearly, there is no
real substitute for live “face time.”
IN AN article on NaturalHealthWeb
titled “We are not meant to live alone,” Margaret Paul, co-creator of the Inner
Bonding self-healing program, calls loneliness “one of the hardest feelings to
feel,” causing us to turn to addictions such as food, drink, drugs, cigarettes
and TV to avoid the painful disconnect.
“Before modern civilization,
people did not live alone... We are meant to live in caring communities with
people to turn to for love and connection, and for help when we need it. Love,
connection and support are vital for our health... We need others to play and
learn with, and share our joy with. And we need others to turn to in times of
sadness and grief. Without this, we feel lonely.”
John Robbins, of
Baskin-Robbins fame, has researched cultures whose members are known for long
life, and agrees with Paul about the vital importance of active caring and being
cared about. “Ultimately,” he says, “it is the love in our lives that underlies
and makes possible our greatest healing and longevity.”
why he sells ice-cream.
IT’S A fact that we enter this world alone and
depart from it alone. That doesn’t mean we are condemned to live
Yet we well know that life isn’t fair. Some are born with more
attractive, outgoing personalities than others, and will therefore have an
easier social ride. And much depends on the family we were born into: If we were
loved and given feelings of self-worth, we will more successfully engage with
Even so, loneliness will always be lurking around the corner,
waiting patiently for life to push any one of us into its chill arms. And when
that happens, it’s no cause for shame – it’s just the human
But if depression – loneliness’s faithful companion – is
sapping one’s energy and preventing real connection with others, then it is a
shame to forgo professional help. No one can create anything meaningful from
under a suffocating blanket.
“People are lonely because they build walls
instead of bridges,” said writer Joseph F. Newton.
Those who feel
chronically lonely must clear the way ahead so they can start building those
bridges, plank by plank.