On Loneliness

We value our solitude until it pinches


“Who can you call?” we always ask if an acquaintance runs into serious trouble or receives shattering news. Who indeed, with Twitter, Facebook, smartphones? Who returns calls to people that, in an emergency, used to receive a neighbor’s shepherd’s pie? Lose your job, mate, parent, or heaven forfend, a child, and who will hold fast with heartfelt hugs? Lonely, but who’s to blame? Acidulous politics, austere economics, technologies telescoped, and us maladjusted? Face to face is how great teachers teach, lawyers argue for justice, love blooms or fades, and enmities calcify. Therapists proliferate who, if not hands-on, are at least not online. Lonesomeness is older than the Parthenon, more ancient than pictographs or metal. Sticks and stones enforced its dangers, and starlight guided not just soothsayers but practical plans. Huts or hovels formed a circle so that we could gaze at each other, not simply for protection.

In school, teachers watched us at recess to learn who played well with others, while at night a monster lived under a good many beds, to be dealt with in the darkness alone. Outgrowing prehistoric fears, we encountered the pressure to pretty up or suck up to be invited to high school socials, a rehearsal for what would subsequently sell, and a goad not to be shunned. Sarcasm and skepticism have a price, and our minds become claustrophobic if we can’t rally pals with whom to sneer at the follies of authority. Alone, the personality squeals for space to stretch. In clans, cliques, claques, packs, blocs, and flocks we’ve communed to survive. The military inculcates a buddy system because lone wolves perish rather soon, as do ungulates marginalized from the herd. On the other hand, popularity is no guarantor of virtue and reformers are reviled if too far out in front, although they can be tolerant of loneliness as long as there’s a bar to drop in at with other avant-gardists or heavy-lifting radicals. A cadre.

Birds migrate in swirls, and you’ll see an aging goose labor up to reach the slipstream of that V for a last trip south. But during down time, so called, we enjoy like birds a bit of solitude to collect our separate sense of identity again. Solo is not viable when you need someone in the same boat to steer while you sleep, but seems romantic till the crab-claw pinch of loneliness begins.

We want jollying emails to reassure us that it’s not our fault if the phone doesn’t ring. Globalized technology wraps us in a veneer of connectivity that allows wives to talk to their husbands in Afghanistan but may bear little weight if counted on at a time of need, when a hug or a hand on the back of the neck would be better. We run marathons, visit animal shelters, tend rooftop honey hives, shop organically, and view cooking shows, among other compensations for the withering of nature out of doors—the lawning of America. Nonetheless, we text as we hike, less aware than we were of birdsong, false dawn, forest ponds.

Unburdening ourselves on Twitter, transmitting grandchild photos, or sharing a ballteam’s fortunes with an unseen fellow fan are phenomena we haven’t evaluated yet. The Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk lived alone for nearly five years on one of the Juan Fernández Islands, thereby inspiring Robinson Crusoe, but I get debilitated by loneliness after two or three months on a Vermont mountainside without neighbors, electricity, or phone. Maybe I don’t fight through it to a second wind, as Selkirk must have done, but live companioned by my past: old loves, chums, and conundrums. People with regrets scab-pick or block what they can, but absent company is not medicinal. Twenty years apart, I had two lovers named McCarthy, for example, and can recall their individually tender ways, but the mere touch of a hand or words exchanged would have been a balm no memories matched.

For run-of-the-mill loneliness I find Amtrak a good momentary salve, hearing the confidences of a seatmate you’ll never see again while the wonders of the continent slide by. Sweet-and-sour murmurings of job and home, kith and kin. Singing a song of lament can be liberating if you’re not alone and yet won’t hear about it from gossips later on. Then in the dining car or the bubble car somebody describes how he financed a niece’s semester abroad, or how a book she loved but somehow lost found good Samaritans who brought it back. Animal spirits cause us to prefer eating together with mild hubbub to the company of ourselves.

The yin and yang of where is everybody? and leave me alone continues, however, lifelong. People thrive in modest flux, exercising one another, keeping their muscles toned with the hormones of proximity. Like a tuning fork, loneliness signals a central strain in our being, not to be dissipated by new gadgets and gizmos. Indeed, a certain alienation seems normal in an era of elective wars, top-heavy economics, scrofulous politics, and heedless hedonism. To stand a little apart from the avalanche shelf may not be lonesome for long.

During a divorce or a midlife puzzle (handsome is as handsome does … did I really want to be a slip-and-fall lawyer?), an isolated spell is inevitable. Rooting for a team with the crowd in a bar, then feeling perky from a waitress’s healing touch as she passes, lends the bloke a shot of dopamine. Glee is a relaxant, though we often attain it by watching mayhem in the movies, concussions in a Super Bowl, “shock and awe” visited in error upon an ancient city, and then sense that we are in decline, as Romans may have felt when they left the Colosseum. For a century our horrific Civil War inoculated us against undue bellicosity—we entered the two world wars tardily, reluctantly—until the glory of VE Day and VJ Day, and getting away with atomizing Hiroshima and Nagasaki without recriminations, tipped us toward vainglory in the 1960s and we grew lonesome among nations in the bog of Vietnam. Loneliness of that kind carries with it bafflement and retrenchment, lots of Stars and Stripes flying in dooryards and women bleaching their hair blond. You look in the mirror, or avoid doing so. I like Jain temples in India (Jainism is perhaps the world religion most protective of Creation) that fill the sanctuary with multiple mirrors, so that the worshiper is confronted from every direction, as if in a funhouse, by the angularity of his follies, dissolving his false fronts.

When lonely, I sometimes demonstrate for peace with a Quaker group in my town, yet also pull on my PFC’s uniform from the 1950s for the Fourth of July to hang out with surviving veterans of Iwo Jima and Anzio and a P-51 pilot who escorted B-17s over Nazi Germany during our last good war. I’ll turn up at the local Pentecostal church, too, mainly for the wholehearted hugs the parishioners bestow on everybody in the pews after talking in tongues. When I asked a sympathetic lady to teach me how to pray, she pointed out I could do that anywhere, any way, but said she would include me in hers. A Catholic taught me the Sign of the Cross, although their religion’s labyrinth of further belief prevented me from joining up, or with a Lutheran, Calvinist, or Church of England apostasy. Even the Quakers are anthropocentric, whereas crows as well as humans holler a greeting to me when I’m out walking because I feed instead of shoot at them.

Selfishness, self-involvement, disengagement frequently bring on loneliness. Are you the type that begs off weddings and funerals inconveniently located out of town and avoids a friend floundering through a bad patch but now finds yourself elbowed to the perimeter of the herd, where predators roam? Come rescue me, we wistfully wish. Wives in tears, deathbeds shirked, or default guilt for other sins of omission are recollected like a trapdoor opening unexpectedly, plunging you into a fugue of lonesomeness, an energy dim-out. Like other life, we operate within a magnetic field that lends us intuitions, harmonious grounding, or surges that feel askew. Like birds migrating, we triangulate daily, and then in our dreams might recheck a reading. The foliage isn’t radiant during shuteye, but the pace is dismissive of loneliness. An angry man is a lonely man, and I’m seldom angry during dreams.

We shun forlorn, explosive, burdened souls who have no visible means of emotional support. Tie into the community, we say; observe God’s gifts to us, whatever your religion—we’ve got that going for us—with a scaffolding of prudence and a grin. The gyroscope of mood and personality inside us needs a fulcrum for equanimity to anchor to, like “blood is thicker than water” or a moral leash on the libido. Better to crack two eggs into a frying pan in the morning and turn the car’s ignition and go to work again, neither straitjacketed nor a sharpster nor a sucker. Though love of course is the gold standard, we’ll make do with baser metals and, if our parents were quite problematical, handle a scribbled note from one of them years after their deaths with a pang of poignant empathy. The open road had beckoned, but you want some instrumentation of the heart to call upon, a kingpost to build your house around.

Who do you know that we know, we ask of new neighbors, and was your old neighborhood like ours? Yet verve and zest attract us too, like a swallow cavorting in the wind. Happiness extends the lifespan, and we’ll chat with our dog or cat when lacking human company. The very word lonesome contains some hope in its caboose.

Ambiguities that eyes and ears might fathom in person blur when computerized, like the minute-long hug a friend says that she needs, so you type LOL. Showing up is more than half the battle in spheres like jobs or marriage, the saying goes, since a roadbed for conventional behavior has been paved. But in a world of electronics, Skyping can be done. And if Earth begins to regurgitate some of our billions back into the rising seas they left originally as salamanders, to sink or swim, will the less endangered bunker down, watching Bogie movies on their iPads instead of the news? In olden days the destitute collected alms in front of a cathedral or mosque because God and the other worshipers were watching. Charity worked almost as directly in the Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy, but will it when Bangladesh drowns—orphans galore withering on precarious levees? I suspect organized religions will be as flummoxed or solipsistic as they were in opposing slavery or the Third Reich. During somersaulting droughts and floods, can pope or mufti, rabbi or lama coalesce humanity into maintaining civilization beyond national boundaries?

Yet it’s becoming lonesome in the modern age to be as jingoistic as we used to be. Our bellicosity in Vietnam and Iraq brought us no imperial splendors, only obloquy abroad and ignominy for the presidents who’d beaten the drum. We miss those midcentury generals, Marshall and Eisenhower, who loved peace more than war, and a president such as Roosevelt who could be a “traitor to his class.” In homes figuratively underwater, the Old Glories flapping outside seem more a signal of distress than straight-up patriotism. For a great many people, solitude is a wireless gizmo to focus on, but some take a tent to the woods in summer to doodle, jog, ponder, and admire nature until, brimming with memories, jokes, and complaints, they need a soul mate to spout off to and so hike back. Estates and yachts provide the rich that same brief elixir, penduluming out from town on weekends.

We sculpt our lives in a free country, and our faces often show it: waffler, proud parent, hangdog cynic, quiet teacher, or self-crafted bigshot. Pharmaceuticals can’t do much for loneliness except blur it—it’s too primal—which is why music, animals, or a green thumb can help, being linked to eternity. (Music’s affinity to our heart’s own beat gives it a leg up on literature.) People either feed the pigeons or they don’t, rejoice in watching other families’ children play or not, and it molds their faces over time. Pep and panache win kudos at any age, but integrity, which can turn prickly, often must solace itself. How does your integrity benefit me? we ask.

Whether for their pep or integrity, I do miss my dead friends, yet without feeling bereft because new acquaintances have their antennae out fluttering for connections and my memory roves through the penumbra of recollections. I regret omissions like not getting to know Kansas or Michigan relatives well enough during the arrogance of my youth, but forgive myself for others swallowed now in the shadows of life’s afterglow and glitter. Ahead, we’ll stagger a bit to keep our footing in shifting sands—dry from drought or wet to muck. If you look at the first dozen years of the 20th century, this sliver of the 21st may scarcely hint at subsequent events. They soon tumbled calamitously into the First World War, the unexpectedly Roaring Twenties, Great Depression, and the Second World War, all crammed within 30 years of 1912. Would it be naïve to expect something less of our next 30?

Songbirds already sound a swan song—halved in volume and diversity from what I remember in springs past, as their habitats south and north are razed. Warblers, thrushes, larks, wrens, chickadees, bobolinks, grosbeaks. Are people listening enough to feel forewarned? Like pain, loneliness can be a natural alarm-bell system, indicating that you are riding for a fall. Obliterating so much of nature is a risky gambit even anthropologically. We feed on proteins beyond the living room and computer screen. Like sleeping and waking, we need to rusticate, then socialize—the out-of-doors, then the schmoozing politeness of indoors. Connubial intimacy helps, and the paradigm of loneliness will remain for a newbie senior in high school or a widowed spouse, a jailbird calling for bail money or a mentally teetering soul, but our environmental isolation cumulatively may become lonely and debilitating. If we continue chopping down, killing off whole kaleidoscopes of Creation that our planet was endowed with, we’ll look for company that isn’t there, casts of characters that filled the toy box, like bears and Babar, rhinos and giraffes, and those we noticed less consciously, from bats to dolphins, bees to kestrels. Perhaps we’ll dowse within ourselves for what’s been lost, or clone a few tremulous specimens to cage, but wishing that Earth could grow again some preindustrial skin. Since the generations that actually knew wild nature will be gone, our lonesomeness could become a sort of echo chamber, calling out to creatures, forests, wilderness captured once on film. When the oceans have been vacuumed of their fish and every craggy hideaway on land has been Googled for its mysteries, we will cherish our birdfeeders and aquariums, plumbing for artesian aquifers within ourselves, internal messaging from the turtles and tigers that are lost.

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Edward Hoagland, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is the author of many books of essays, travel, and ficiton. His most recent novel is In the Country of the Blind.


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