This passage from Olivia Lang’s book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, has me thinking about my relationship to loneliness and being alone:
Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair. Then again, it can be transient, lapping in and out in reaction to external circumstance, like the loneliness that follows on the heels of a bereavement, break-up or change in social circles.
Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness, it is subject too to pathologisation, to being considered a disease. It has been said emphatically that loneliness serves no purpose… Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any experience so much a part of our common shared lives can be entirely devoid of meaning, without a richness and a value of some kind.
I think about loneliness quite a bit.
It’s not something that I, an alone-a-lot person, experience too frequently. But, in the recent months, I have felt this feeling with increasing regularity. It isn’t necessarily that feeling where one wants human company (although yes, that’s essential), but a deeper, unsolvable existential loneliness. A feeling of lonely without a cure.
But, like sadness, most of us want to fix the uncomfortable feelings we have. It’s as if any feeling than what we perceive as positive is something to be dealt with—to be banished—stat!
I’m learning to be with these feelings. Like physical pain, what do these uncomfortable feelings communicate? How can I learn from the full range of human emotion and experience?
While neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo, in his study Social Isolation and Health, with an Emphasis on Underlying Mechanisms, asserts that the negative consequences that social isolation can have on your health can be dramatic—even hastening heart disease and death—it’s important not to confuse being alone with being lonely.
Benefits to Being Alone
There are many benefits to being alone. Those who don’t mind being, or enjoy time, alone tend to be more resilient and can reach inside during times of trouble, rather than look outward, for answers. The Atlantic published an article in 2017 called The Virtues of Isolation that makes for a nice counterpoint to all this loneliness doom-and-gloom.
Note: I’m not disregarding loneliness and its negative impacts, I’m suggesting it can have some upsides, as well. With our biological tendency for negativity bias, it’s too easy to go down the pessimistic track—especially with uncomfortable feelings. These feelings are worth time in the discomfort of self-reflection to learn about ourselves and how we cope and view the world.
For more on being alone, check out Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s 1956 classic, Thoughts in Solitude for a take on the pleasures of being alone. This book may be the balm you need when society suggests that alone or lonely is a problem to be solved, and not an experience to discover.