Loneliness is an inevitable part of the human condition, no matter your culture or set of relationships. You have to spend time alone. And sometimes, you'll spend time not only alone, but undistracted. The work is done for the day. You have no plans. There are no pressing errands or chores. You are not tired. No activity - not reading or writing, not cooking or playing music, not anything - calls out for your attention.
You feel aware that all activities have a shared characteristic, which is that they can distract you from your loneliness. Or at least numb it somewhat, bring it to a tolerable level. So much of our work, too, is done in the long run to protect us from loneliness, or with the goal of helping us escape it.
Some people seem to revel in being alone. They feel as if they have too many demands on their attention, and crave some time to themselves. They have so many books or hobbies to pursue. Or maybe they just want to sleep or get some exercise. They are almost tormented by the extreme pressure to relate. They are more in demand than they can handle.
Others might look at these people with envy. For some, loneliness is a feeling of alienation and rejection. Or perhaps of neglect, of being left out. It might be caused not even by being ignored, but due to life circumstances, such as a transition or a move that leads to distance from loved ones. Some people might have friends, family, even a romantic partner and children, and yet still feel consumed by loneliness, out of touch with the people they believe care about them the most. It's hard to know who has it worst. But everyone has this loneliness in some form or another. I imagine that even the people who can't seem to escape the ceaseless demands for their attention must experience a special form of loneliness within that dynamic.
Now, we all know that there are experiences, or practices, that are said to help us escape from loneliness, or numb it, or at least push the boundaries of it back a little bit. But these fixes are often temporary. An isolated individual who begins to make friends may find themselves surprised to learn that the loneliness comes right back, this time in a new form. Yes, the new friends help - in the right moment, when the interaction is desired and both people are at their best - but often, even two good friends will not see eye to eye or have a meeting of the minds. A person whose life places constant demands on their time might find that they deeply miss the activity just a few days or weeks after it stops.
Some people who know a thing or two about psychology might believe that they can hack their brains to bypass the feeling of loneliness, or perhaps to transcend it. They might hope that meditation, the experience of flow, or a passionate daily habit of creating art might assuage the pain. Is it possible that all it takes to end the pain of loneliness is some careful retooling of one's daily habits?
Or then again, maybe loneliness is a symptom of some sort of disordered psychology, an unresolved emotional issue. Once we identify that issue and resolve it, perhaps through therapy or some new patterns of behavior, the loneliness will disappear as well, or at least change into a more manageable and meaningful form.
Others might try to accept loneliness with a stoic's attitude, that the suffering it entails is self-created and can be ended through one's own strength of character. Perhaps it can only be accepted, just as we accept the inevitability of death, the possibility of tragedy in our lives, and the daily burdens that we have to carry.
Still others might diagnose loneliness as a symptom of some aspect of modern industrialized life, and believe that while it is as inescapable as our current economic and political systems seem to be, that we can fight against it with the same kind of activist spirit we bring to other causes. Perhaps, they think, loneliness manifests from and gives rise to oppression, and needs to be treated as a tool of power used to keep the powerless under heel.
Like any experience, loneliness can be looked through two different lenses: as an experience in the moment, and as a narrative, memory, or source of meaning. In the moment, loneliness can manifest as a range of feelings, sensations in the body, thoughts, and patterns of behavior that might be gross or subtle. There might be many durations and intensities of loneliness, and different characters of it as well, as many as there are varieties of wine.
What about as a source of meaning? Loneliness can feel like a frightening experience, even a monster that's attacking you, or a ghost that has you trapped in your room. And we can find meaning in battling against monsters, slaying dragons, exorcising the evil spirits that haunt us. If loneliness feels like fear to you, maybe there is a way you can confront it. Or maybe it's not a monster, but a beggar you walk by every day, feeling ashamed of yourself. Maybe by giving loneliness some care and sustenance, some loving attention, you'll form an ongoing relationship, and it will reveal itself, like a Greek god in disguise, to be something altogether more healthy and holy - solitude.
Then again, loneliness can feel like a void. The absence of meaning. A silence where a story should be. We've all felt this. You might feel it if you've ever come home to an empty house at the end of the day, with no plans not just for the day, but for the rest of the week. Or you could feel it if you take an international trip as a tourist, having read all the guidebooks, then landing in the airport and suddenly feeling like a stranger in a strange land. Sure, it's full of amazing architecture, great food, trinkets to buy, new friends to meet in the hostel. But right now, none of that feels real or important. You're just a body, standing in a place where nobody knows you, where everybody was doing just fine before you got here and will continue doing so after you leave. It's the sensation of having too much time on your hands.
Art has been described as a cure for loneliness, but it can also cause it as well. You listen to a song. One day, it might feel like the singer is relating to you, and you might feel your loneliness has disappeared as you're bathed in the words and the music. Another day, though, the song might only remind you that it's a mere recording. The artist isn't present, doesn't even know you, and wasn't thinking about you at all when he or she wrote the song. And the song doesn't belong to you. It's a commodity, a commercial product, and perhaps many millions of other people listen to it as well. The special relationship you'd like to have the song feels cheapened by the realization, and you turn it off.
After all, probably fewer people are listening closely to the silence around them than are listening to that song right at this moment. And there's something unique about the silence you're hearing. It's broken by noises that are unique to where you are. And the thoughts in your particular head are merged with that silence. This is my silence, you can think. Nothing to do, and nothing to be done about it.
Now, I don't want to appear to be advertising meditation as if it's the cure for loneliness, after all. Just listening to the silence more often might be fine for a moment, for an hour, even a whole day or more. But as you can see, there are so many types of loneliness, and so many proposed ways to deal with it, that prescribing a universal cure seems ridiculous, even if I had the credibility to do so. Which I don't. I'm still struggling with loneliness as much as anybody, and I began thinking about this not to convey some great solution that worked for me, but to articulate the problem I was having.
It seems to me that a multi-pronged approach might be best. Is it possible to commit to approaching whatever social relationships are available to us with renewed vigor, while simultaneously working to deepen our relationship with our solitary self? To accept the pain of solitude, but also to meditate on it? To distract ourselves while also making efforts at genuine creativity? To envision what it would be like to find a rich sense of meaning and genuine emotional comfort in spending a substantial amount of time by ourselves, while also imagining and desiring the joys of a deep and reciprocal relationship? To try and do our work for its own sake, but also to appreciate that we hope our work will be inspiring and rewarding in a way that makes us attractive to other people? To articulate the pain we feel when we simply cannot shake an uncomfortable, even an intolerable loneliness, while appreciating that at best, that act of articulation is still only getting us from the moment we're in to another moment at some later time?
While we can all take inspiration from each other as we deal with our individual experiences of loneliness, it seems to me that it's up to each person alone to forge their own life-long relationship with solitude. No matter which TED talk you watch, which book or article you read, and no matter which friend you talk to, the end of that exchange will come, and you'll be back to yourself again, always with the burning question "What now?"
And that question will raise itself over and over again, moment by moment, through all your waking hours. "What now?" "What now?" Sometimes, you'll answer it. Sometimes, somebody else will answer it for you. Maybe your boss. Maybe your child. But all too often, "What now" will have no answer that can truly convince you it is right. Oh, you'll give an answer. But you'll know that it was only so that you could have something to say.
That's just how it is. The challenge, then, is not to give the right answer to "What now," but to keep yourself interested in the possible answers. As a scientist, my job is to stay curious, endlessly so, about the questions in my field of research. As a teacher, my job is to stay curious about my students. As a friend, partner, family member, and part of my community, my job is to stay curious about the people with whom I am in relationship.
As myself, as a solitary person, my job is to stay curious about the question "What now?"
That curiosity can come through in observation of my surroundings. In nature, by a wooded lake, looking at the reflections on the water at sunset and listening to the sounds of birds and mammals calling amongst the trees, the answer to "What now?" might simply be look and listen. If I am lucky, I not only do so, but for a moment, I lose myself in that sensation.
Other times, I am not in such a beautiful setting, or my mind is more frantic, my heart more anxious. The answer to "What now?" might be that I try ringing up one of my friends, just to see if they'll answer. Or it might be to put on my running shoes and get my heart pounding. There could be all sorts of activities, or no activity at all if I simply choose to pass a moment in stillness.
Understanding that you'll never be separate from the question of "What now?", and that this is the only question that solitude, that loneliness, is asking you, can bring some helpful clarity to the time alone. Because for some people, loneliness doesn't seem to be asking an innocuous question like that. Instead, it seems to be asking some terrifying questions, or simply telling you some horrible facts. That you could die and nobody would find your body for hours or days or weeks. That most likely, none of your friends are thinking at all about you right now. That when they talk to you, they have themselves and their other relationships more on their mind; that you are an afterthought, or merely a convenient listening ear. That the two of you are merely trying to escape your loneliness together, like two prisoners who break out of their own cells and into each others'. There seems to be no way out of the prison.
These are the kinds of thoughts that can lead a person to truly suffer from loneliness. And people act on that suffering in tragic or destructive ways.
But again, I think that we are mistranslating the questions of solitude when we look at them in this dark light. "What now?" is all they are really trying to ask. It's a question with no agenda. It says that you are free, right now. Not free to do anything. You can't intrude into the relationships of others that you can see all around. You can't suddenly become lost in a fit of inspiration, or switch on some charismatic electricity that will command the attention of the people who are at present ignoring you.
Imagine that you have a long and attractive menu in your mind. It lists all the realistic options of things there are for you to do. Under "starters," it lists appetizing snacks like "watch something on Netflix" and healthy options like "take a moment to just breathe." Under "entrees," it has a wide variety of hearty fare: all the hobbies you know how to do, the errands and chores and wellness routines you probably should take care of, and all the many plans and ideas you have yet to even begin exploring. And down at the end, under "desserts," you'll find choices that are fleeting but delightful, one of which might be eating some literal ice cream.
Becoming comfortable with solitude might mean that we not only have access to a great menu of options, all of which we've tried, but that we know ourselves well enough to judge what we're hungry for and what is good for us in the moment.
I believe that if we can accomplish these two things - translating the question asked by aloneness as the simple phrase "What now?" and developing our mental menu of possible answers - then we have a way of transforming loneliness from a haunting or empty experience into something else. We can stop seeing it as an accident, a disease, or an emergency, and acknowledge that loneliness was, is, and will be with us at every moment. Loneliness is just ourselves. It is, in fact, our human freedom. Our potential. Loneliness is all the realistic options we do have, moment by moment, and the goals and plans and experiments that we devise to give a sense of meaning and purpose to all that activity.
Yes, loneliness may still hurt. There is no cure-all. This is just another technique, with all the others. In fact, it is not even that. All I've accomplished here is typing some words into my computer. And the act of doing so has had an effect on my mind. That is part of loneliness, too. The journey that I took through these moments is different than the one I'll take in the future, or that you will take as you read and reflect on this message. We cannot copy or step into each others' minds, no matter how much effort the speaker puts into making themselves clear and how hard the listener tries to truly understand. There is an unbridgeable gulf.
That is why I come back to the idea that loneliness is always an individual's task. No - even harder than that. It's the task of a particular version of you, the one that exists right now, in some moment in time, to feel stitched together with your own past and future, to feel as if your mind belongs with your body, and that all the different parts of your mind, and all the sensations you are having, belong together, and belong to you. You've heard of dissociation, which is sort of the opposite sensation. A separation of the self into fragmented pieces.
This is the opposite. It's association. And of course association -not to be cute - would be the cure for loneliness, wouldn't it? As I said, I can't promise a solution, but we can at least try to understand the problem.
Part of the problem of loneliness is that we just seem to keep asking ourselves the question "What now," or one of its scarier versions, pretty much constantly from day to day. And another part of the problem is this second aspect, that we often feel at least somewhat dissociated. There are memories in your head that you haven't thought about in years. Ways you haven't moved your muscles in weeks or months. People who think about you from time to time, and who you think about too, but a little less every year. But, for now, not so little that you never think about each other. The potential is still there.
And the world is full of strangers. These strangers mostly are on their own journeys. They don't know why they should want to meet you. But some of them are ready to meet anybody. Look for the person standing alone in a corner at a party. Send a kind message to somebody on an online dating service. Try going to a bar, a group hike, or a book club (if there's no pandemic on the loose) and see if you can strike up a conversation there. Perhaps you can even help some of these busy folk to understand why they in fact should want to meet you.
What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that loneliness can feel like the worst sort of emergency, one where we don't know the cause or the extent of the catastrophe, but we simply feel in our bones that something very, very bad is happening. Or it can be an awful trickster, making us sick and then selling us snake oil that only makes us more ill. It preys on our worst anxieties, and convinces us that by adopting the right set of habits, buying the right clothes, getting the right education, and so on, we will transform ourselves into somebody who's worth another person's time and love.
But loneliness, I think, has the potential to be a friend. Almost a secular god - omnipresent, benevolent, powerful. It is always asking us "What next?" and encouraging us to develop a rich repertoire of answers. Trauma victims are sometimes hurt the most when they have no way to help themselves, when they are trapped and must wait passively to be rescued. Loneliness seems to want us to make an active choice to "What next?", even if that choice is to sit silently for a while.
I don't think that there's some particular attitude or energy that's ideal for responding to loneliness, except to say that panic, anxiety, and depression seem at the very least to be more common than optimal. Sometimes, "What next?" wants to be followed by a sense of calm, a willingness to do very little for a while and remind ourselves that we don't have to do anything. Other times, "What next?" leads us to a flurry of activity, where we might get a lot of chores done, get in touch with friends, or start a whole new hobby. I've never experienced enlightenment, and I don't have any strong preconceptions that there is some narrow brain state that makes all these existential problems vanish as we ride away on a cloud of bliss. I believe more that people get stuck. In depression, in mania, in the doldrums, in reactivity, in thought, in emotion, in habit, in states of emergency, in obsessions, in burdensome responsibilities, in too much unstructured time.
Loneliness can feel like a trap when it points out to us how stuck we seem to be. When we can't see a way out, or when we perceive all our actions to escape or accept or transcend as futile, then we have the learned helplessness of loneliness. Although I feel little confidence that wisdom can easily translate from mind to mind, I think it is probably important for each person, somehow or other, to get to a place where they have consciously accepted and found words to express the idea that loneliness is not a trap, not a prison, not an invasion from which escape is futile. It is a gentle but probing question reminding us of our freedom, and the sense that the next minute, the next hour, the next day, the next year, we will only have more freedom. And this state of affairs will continue until we die and are released from having to answer that question once and for all.
Exploring the problem of loneliness with my own wisdom and my own logical and anthropological understanding of the basic conditions of human life helps me feel more hope for tomorrow. And more freedom in this minute. It helps me feel like there is meaning to be found even in the most inane distractions, and as though the most profound accomplishments are not beyond my grasp. I hope that it will help me feel as though the silence between sentences when I talk with my friends is not an anxious waiting for more words, but a reflective time to hear and appreciate what was said.
We will see. That's all there is to do. What next?