“I stretch my loneliness out from eternity to eternity.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. by Robert Bly, from Selected Poems
One ant, a single bee, an abandoned antelope, and a lone wolf doesn’t amount to very much on their own, and neither does a socially isolated human being.
Some animals have evolved to rely on another set of eyes, another set of hands and minds, to keep safe, find more food, and to raise their young, to receive comfort, care, and guidance. Such a strategy has proven beneficial in the course of our evolution too.
We need strong social ties between every member of our clan and us to help us survive, and when those ties weaken we feel lost, we feel down, we grieve, and we hurt for our place among our people. This separation plunges us into darkness, and we will do anything to get out again.
Think of community as a sort of addiction, a medicine, a supplement to keep us alive, aware, and a part of life and our surroundings. We are addicted to communicating, to mutual intimacy and the exchange of ideas, grievances, and interests. We long to feel safe, seen, cared for, understood, useful, wanted, and connected.
Everyone feels lonely sometimes. Even those among us with big families, lovers, successful professions, money, friends, marriages, kids, even those of us who have achieved fame and secured a place in history, even they feel lonely sometimes.
How could we not? With such a rich inner life and such depth of identity, desire, wisdom, curiosity, and pain and no way to fully convey or share all that we are with another, how could we not lay awake at night wishing for a warm body to take it all away? How could we not long for a friend who might make us laugh, and to hear our pains? How could we not wish to know that at least we are thought of when we aren’t around or that our presence makes some measurable difference while we are here? What is life for if it isn’t for any of those things?
If having a community is an addiction, loneliness is a sort of withdrawal, a symptom, a warning signal of social disruption and spiritual dysfunction. It’s uncomfortable, painful, and we go to great lengths to avoid it. It manifests in a mind that has been cut loose and sent adrift, a mind that has become vulnerable. Loneliness is our reminder to seek out the safety of our tribe again. It’s the solution evolution found to keep us together. Loneliness made other people are our homes.
“Be silent in that solitude, Which is not loneliness —”
— Edgar Allan Poe, Spirits of the Dead
Of course, alone and lonely are not the same things. Sometimes we like to be alone. Sometimes we need to be. Time on our own, to be with ourselves and to shed the expectations and judgment of society is good for our mental health and an important part of our self-care. When we want to be alone, we do not feel lonely. Loneliness is the perception of being socially isolated and alienated when we don’t wish to be. We might be surrounded by people, but if our connections and interactions aren’t meaningful to us, we might as well be the only person on the planet.
We all know what it is but though evolution may have provided the instinct to keep us together the process failed to provide instruction. We want to communicate, but how? We want to connect, but nothing seems to be working.
Neuroscience and psychology have provided perspective by proving that the pain is real, not just mentally making us more fearful, more anxious, and more depressed, but physically making us more susceptible to disease with raised levels of stress hormones, inflammation, and a decreased immune response. Loneliness is not just an emotional malady, it is a physical one, and it most certainly can be fatal.
Science has been able to provide some insight but little balm for the pain. People forget, loneliness isn’t solved by simply surrounding yourself with more people. Despite our rising numbers and ever denser living conditions in our cities, despite the internet and all we to love and hate in common we still feel so alone. We still have no friends, no one to confide in, no one to let us know that while we may be alone inside of ourselves and doomed to be misunderstood for our entire existence, we are at least not alone in the feeling and frustration. We are not alone in our loneliness.
The problem is we expect people to come to us when we are lonely, but the answer is the opposite, we have to go to others. We have to seek out or place and purpose among a tribe of people who will make us feel understood, important, and loved. We have to go out and search for community and when we find it, we have to give of ourselves rather than take what we find and expect to fulfill our longing. Volunteer, share your story, listen to the stories of others, learn something, teach something, get out in the world, or call someone if you can’t and have the world brought to you, reach out, get therapy. When you need people, go to people.
And that is all well and good, and that will all make it better, but the real problem, the problem we won’t name, is that loneliness is a pain with no cure. It’s a chronic condition prone to frequent flare-ups and no matter what the doctors prescribe, it will eventually fail.
“We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”
— Orson Welles
Loneliness is our natural state and everything else is an effort to escape it, not the other way around. We are not naturally connected creatures, we are naturally longing for connection. We are not particularly good at seeing each other, we are only longing to be seen.
What is best to do is to accept it. What is best to do is to stop being afraid of it. Your pain is natural, common, an expected part of human existence. Loneliness is universal and it is that pain which connects us all. That is what we fail to see in each other, the utter loneliness. Look into the eyes of everyone you meet and you will see it there, that terrifying solitude mirroring your own back at you.
It isn’t easy to maintain relationships. It isn’t easy to keep those relationships meaningful. It isn’t easy to be secure in those relationships either. We all feel lonely and we feel it all the time, deep down. It can’t be cured, but it can be eased, you only have to seek out the pain in others and reveal your own too.
“When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.”
― Tennessee Williams, Camino Real
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Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter L under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence.” I am aware that the challenge is over and that I have failed to finish on time, but I am determined not to fail to finish at all.