Building walls, not bridges

In My Own Write: I wanted to write about loneliness, but something held me back. Was it that readers might think I was talking about myself?

"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 (1900-1938)
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 no friends.
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 pain.”
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 loved.”
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 relationships.
“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 with.”
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 friends.”
“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 connectedness.”
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.
One 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 all...
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.”
Perhaps that’s 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 alone.
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 the world.
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 condition.
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.