We all feel lonely from time to time, and I was kind of wallowing in it the other day. You know the drill: I feel so disconnected. No one gets me. No one really cares. Then it moved on to the philosophical: I am alienated from my true self. We are trapped in our own consciousness. We are awash in a vast sea of cosmic emptiness, peering into the abyss. It was a raging pity party, with my background in Existentialism as my enabler. Wasn’t it Kierkegaard who whined, “People understand me so poorly that they don’t even understand my complaint about them not understanding me”?
He wasn’t alone. Famous celebrities and authors with millions of adoring fans feel alone. Claire Danes: “Acting is the greatest answer to my loneliness that I have found.” Jonathan Safran Foer: “Why do I write? It’s not that I want people to think I am smart, or even that I am a good writer. I write because I want to end my loneliness.”
Is loneliness all bad? It certainly seems inescapable at times, and maybe there’s a bright side. John Paul Sartre thought so: “Hell is other people.”
I started to think more about loneliness, and I was reminded about why human existence requires, indeed, thrives on it in many ways.
1. Loneliness is essential to maintaining individuality. When we feel utterly alone, disconnected, and misunderstood, we have the freedom to create our identities to our own specs. Disregarding the world, we can express our own inner vision of ourselves, without the distraction of social noise. We lose this in group settings where we are heavily influenced by others’ attitudes and opinions, as well as by our socially defined roles—as “friend,” “brother,” “teacher,” and so on. Nietzsche put it thus: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
2. Most artists have found loneliness essential to the creative process. I mentioned Danes and Safran Foer, and Kierkegaard adds: “What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music.” Part of the artist’s unhappiness, he believed, lay in feelings of loneliness and alienation. Those Existentialists really knew how to suffer. American author Bruce Barton went further: “It would do the world good if every man would compel himself occasionally to be absolutely alone. Most of the world’s progress has come out of such loneliness.”
3. Loneliness is a catalyst for empathy and connection with others. Such is true of all personal suffering: It enhances self-awareness, sensitizes us to others’ pain and deepens our bond with them. “It is in solitude and loneliness that we find the threads that bind us together in community,” said Camus. According to Tom Wolfe, it also has the added benefit of being “the surest cure for vanity.” Talk about a bright side.
Considering the many positive aspects of feeling lonely, we may agree with David Foster Wallace that “the interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for [an] anesthetic against loneliness.” It’s uncomfortable to experience, but it’s also important to experience since it can take us to higher places.
There is one arena, though, in which loneliness strikes me as tragic, and without redeeming effect: the suffering it causes the elderly. A beloved relative of mine in her late 90s recently died of what could well be described as loneliness. Widowed, living alone albeit in a “senior” setting, bereft of friends (most of whom had died), largely detached from the frenetic lives of her children and grandchildren (not from neglect, just the realities of today’s world), the hours of solitude, the haunting specter of life’s end approaching—what good is there in any of that? “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty,” said Mother Theresa. I think this is what my own grandmother must’ve be referring to as she cried out her final words at age 96: “Enough is enough!”
Rather than wallowing in our own loneliness when it strikes, then, or attempting to anesthetize ourselves against it, it seems we could do so much good by directing it to a greater awareness of someone else’s loneliness—followed by an effort to ease their load somehow, letting them know that they are not, in fact, alone and unwanted. An amazing gift to them, and, in the end, to ourselves—relief from our loneliness.