One Doesn’t Have to Be a Lonely Number (June 7, 2009)

posted Sep 3, 2009, 12:18 PM by Neal Jones

        Sondra, a new therapy client at another time and place, didn’t have to tell me that she was depressed.  I could see her depression.  She slumped into my office as if she were being pressed down by the weigh of her sadness, and her eyes were devoid of any sparkle of life.  She was even dressed in black, as if she were in mourning.

        “What has happened?” I asked.

        “Sam, the love of my life, has left me.  Now I’m alone, totally alone.”

        From the way Sondra looked and spoke, I assumed that she and Sam had been together for a long time.  It turned out that they had been together for less than three weeks.  As she told me about how desperately sad and lonely she was, I kept feeling this disconnect – all this emotion over a three-week relationship. 

        “Is it hard for you to be alone?” I asked.

        “Isn’t it hard for everybody?,” she replied with some annoyance.  “Of course it’s hard.  I’ve never been alone – never.”  She went on to tell me about a long series of failed relationships with several husbands and boyfriends. 

        “What’s it like for you when you are alone?” I asked.

        She looked me straight in the eye, and her answer gave me a chill.  “It’s like I don’t exist.”

        Despite the fact that her most recent relationship had lasted only three weeks, Sondra seemed so desperate that I was worried about her, worried that she might harm herself.  So instead of waiting a full week before our next appointment, I scheduled her for the following Monday.

        When Monday came, I hardly recognized her as she bounded into my office.  She was wearing bright clothes and a bright face.  Before she could speak, I couldn’t help asking, “What has happened?”

        “Oh, that’s right, you don’t know about Bob.  I met Bob this weekend after seeing you.  Bob is wonderful!  He’s everything I’ve always wanted in a man.  I know that I’ve finally found my soul-mate.  We haven’t been apart since we met.  We’re already talking about moving in together.”

        Apparently, Sondra had found another cure, another temporary cure, for her loneliness.  She may be an extreme example, but her fear of solitude is not unusual.  Our culture doesn’t do solitude well.  In fact, we seem to have a judgment against solitude, as if being alone is a bad thing.  If you aren’t married or in a relationship, there is still this stigma that you are a loser, that something must be wrong with you.  Maybe you’re not attractive enough or smart enough or successful enough or feminine enough or masculine enough.  If you’re introverted and reserved, you risk being seen as cold, distant, stuck-up, or angry.  When we were children, we were often punished for bad behavior by being told to leave the table and go to our rooms to be alone.  At school, we were punished by being left inside the classroom alone while our classmates went outside for recess.  Criminals and dissidents are often exiled from the familiar circle of family and friends, and solitary confinement is considered one of the worst forms of punishment. 

        I suppose that solitude is bound to get a bad rap in an extraverted culture like ours that values activity, busyness, gregariousness, and sociability and devalues quietness, reflection, and introspection.  Think of the difference between Western culture and Eastern culture, the home of Buddhism and meditation.  According to the research in personality traits, we really are an extraverted culture – three out of four Americans are extraverts as opposed to being introverts. 

         We seem to equate aloneness with loneliness, but the two are not inevitably the same.  Being alone simply means being apart from others.  It’s a neutral state, neither good nor bad.  Loneliness is about a sense of loss, about missing a connection with another person.  Nevertheless, I think our culture does engender more loneliness than most societies because we so heavily emphasize our individualism and self-reliance and personal freedom, and we downplay the importance of connection and belonging and relationships.  Plus, we have largely lost our sense of community – the extended family, the stable residential neighborhood where neighbors actually know one another and do things together, the local merchant who knows you by name, the family doctor who has watched you and your kids grow up.  Plus – and you know this is a favorite rant of mine – our technology, which is supposed to help keep us connected – internet, email, cell phones, twitter, Facebook, MySpace, BlackBerries, Blueberries, Strawberry cheesecake – actually keeps us disconnected because we’re spending more time interfacing with our gadgets than with human faces.  The upshot is that we probably live in the most disconnected, isolating culture in history, which means that a lot of us are no only alone but lonely. 

        We’ve always thought that the American way of life was the dream life and that everyone else wants to be just like us, but I wonder if they know what they’re getting themselves into.  When Russia switched from a communist economy to a capitalistic free market economy, life expectancy for men dropped from 67 to 60, and a similar drop occurred in almost all other former Soviet countries.  There were a few exceptions where this didn’t happen, in places like Poland and the Czech Republic.  What was the difference?  Social support.  In countries where more than 45% of the population was a member of some social organization, like trade unions, churches, sports teams, or political organizations, the every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog world of the free market had no significant adverse effect on mortality rates.  So apparently, we need community not only for our emotional health but for our physical health as well.

        Loneliness may result from being isolated from others, but I also believe that there is a certain loneliness that is basic to our existence, that is simply a part of what it means to be a human being.  I think we become aware of this existential loneliness, for instance, when we contemplate our own mortality, that each of us must face our own death, that no one can die for us or save us from death.  Dying may be one of the loneliest human experiences.  I also think we become aware of our basic loneliness when we contemplate the fact that each of us is alone in being responsible for our life, that no one else can live our life for us, make our decisions for us, or determine our meaning or purpose for us.  This making of a life is a lifelong project that we can’t give away to someone else.  For better or worse, we are born with a life on our hands, and being ultimately responsible for your life can be a lonely business. 

        This basic loneliness that is part of our existence can be a heavy burden to bear, which is why I think some people look for a cure in their relationships with others, like my client Sondra.  In her relationships with men, she reminds me of Martin Buber’s distinction of “I-It” relationships, as opposed to “I-Thou” relationships.  Buber said that an I-It relationship is the relationship between a person and a thing, like between a carpenter and a hammer or a driver and a car.  It’s a purely functional relationship.  We are using an object for some purpose.  Buber pointed out, however, that we can also have I-It relationships with other people, as when we use other people as an instrument for our ends.  This is not always a bad thing because we don’t always have the time or energy to relate heart-to-heart with everyone we encounter.  Sometimes we don’t want to know the person in the drive-through window; we just want her to hurry up and give us our change and our hamburger. 

        I think people are more likely to use other people when they can’t tolerate their own aloneness.  If they can’t bear it on their own, they will try to use others to bear it for them.  I think this is the way Sondra tried to use the men in her life, and I think this is why none of her relationships lasted because eventually each one of them realized that they were being used.  No one likes to be used.  The image I have of Sondra is of a desperate woman at sea who is afraid that she is going to drown in her loneliness, so she clings to whomever she can grab.  The men in her life had to pull away in order not to be pulled down by her.

        This loneliness that is endemic to the human condition cannot be eliminated entirely, but I think it can be assuaged in two ways.  One way is learning to relate to others in more of an I-Thou relationship, a relationship of respect – respect for the person as a human being, not simply as a means to my end.  An I-Thou relationship implies that I would be less self-conscious.  My overarching thought would not be “What does he or she think of me?” or “What’s in it for me?”  I would not be looking primarily for praise, money, status, power, sexual release, or any other reward or benefit, though a less self-conscious relationship would be rewarding in itself.  An I-Thou relationship implies that I would be looking primarily at the other person, at their health and welfare, looking for their best interests, which means that I would spend a fair amount of time listening to them so as to know them fully.  It means that I would focus more on loving than on being loved, on giving more than receiving, though, again, in loving I am more likely to be loved and in giving I am more likely to receive.  In other words, I would be in relationship, not because I needed to, but because I wanted to. 

        Now I realize that this is an ideal because I don’t believe that even the saints loved purely or were entirely altruistic.  I think our needs, including our need to assuage our loneliness, always enter into our relationships.  But this ideal of an I-Thou relationship is worth striving for because I know from firsthand experience – and so do you – that when I can get past myself, past my needs and desires, and relate as a loving, giving human being to another human being, my life is not nearly as lonely as when I treat others as objects of my needs and desires.  Instead of clinging desperately to others to use them as a life preserver, I can gently reach out to others, and we can swim together so that the sea of life is not so lonely. 

        Another way of assuaging our loneliness is to realize that when we are alone, we are present with ourselves.  When anyone says that they cannot stand being alone, what they are really saying is that they cannot stand being with themselves.  When Erich Fromm says that “the ability to be alone is the condition for the ability to love,” I think what he means is that until we can love ourselves and appreciate ourselves and respect ourselves, we really can’t love, appreciate, or respect others.  We end up using them as if they were objects. 

        When Sondra came back to therapy after her relationship with Bob ended, as it inevitably would, one of the assignments I gave her was to spend some uninterrupted time alone and get to know herself.  By the way, do you realize how difficult it is these days to find some uninterrupted time alone, away from cell phones and messages and advertisements and noise?  Next to oil and clean water, I think quiet solitude may by our most precious endangered resource.  I asked Sondra to keep a journal and record whatever thoughts and feelings bubbled up inside her.  When I first gave her this assignment, she looked like a deer in the headlights.  Being alone with Sondra was a terror for her.  It was as if I were asking her to spend some time alone with a stranger, which is indeed what I was asking her to do.  She was a stranger to herself.  At first she resisted and could only tolerate a few minutes a day by herself.  So I gave her some questions to ask herself and to record in her journal, like “What are you avoiding?  What are you afraid of?  Instead of running away, see if you can turn and face it.”

        And I remembered what Alfred North Whitehead said about religion.  He said that “religion is what the individual does with his or her own solitariness.”  So I gave her some religious questions to ponder:  From whence did you come?  In other words, what and who’s story are you living, and is it a story you want to continue living by?  I asked her to ask herself where she was going.  In other words, what direction is your life taking you, and where will you end up if you continue in this direction?  And who is God for you?  In other words, what is your ultimate concern, what gives your life meaning, what is your truth?  These are hard questions, and the answers can be found only in solitude.  Religion is what you do with your solitariness. 

        Like wading out into the deeper end of a pool, Sondra was gradually able to tolerate more and more solitude, and she got to know herself a little better.  She discovered that without a man in her life, she felt worthless and that she had organized her life around pleasing the man she was with in the hope that his liking her would prove that she was worthwhile.  She came to see that she had been opaque to herself and had no idea what she wanted or needed.  Instead of asking, “Who am I” she had been asking, “What do you want me to be?”  She used to ask, “What do you want from me?”  In her solitariness, she has learned to ask, “What do I want for myself?” 

        Like so many clients, I don’t know what happened to Sondra after her therapy with me ended.  I would hope for her that whether she was with someone else or by herself, that she would be comfortable in the presence of either.  That would be my hope for all of us.