“The main thing I did with this book,” Emily White says on her website, “was break the taboo against talking about loneliness.” I felt the weight of that taboo as I debated whether to blog about having read her book. It seems obvious that I wouldn’t have looked it up if I weren’t lonely myself, after all — lonely enough, indeed, to be looking for insight and support.
Actually, I’m not sure that what inhibits me is thinking there’s a “taboo” around the subject so much as unease about what the admission of loneliness means, and how people might respond, or feel they should respond. I don’t want anyone’s sympathy, or offers of companionship, or invitations that come from obligation or pity. I also don’t want well-intentioned but ultimately fatuous advice, because trust me, anyone who’s looking up a book called Lonely at the library has already thought if it, whatever your suggestion is, and probably tried it too! As I have mentioned before, I also tend to avoid getting really personal here, in this public space (which is also, in whatever vexed and complicated a way, a professional, or semi-professional, space). And in whatever space, I don’t usually like to expose my vulnerabilities. I suspect that if asked, people who know me personally would likely describe me as someone who’s almost always fairly poised and in control. More turbulent emotions certainly leak out, in real life, here and (more often) on Twitter, where the brevity and fluidity of the form makes revelations feel less undermining (an illusion? perhaps!). But I’m not by instinct or habit particularly demonstrative or confessional in any context. (That’s probably why there’s a long history of friends of mine trying to get me to “let my hair down” — but that’s the subject of another post, or could be, if this were a different kind of blog!)
Reading Lonely helped me realize, though, that this tendency to keep my private feelings even as private as I do is actually a contributing factor to some of their negative effects on my life. Don’t worry: I’m not about to start oversharing! What the research White summarizes clarified, however, is that loneliness is less a function of sociability or social connections in and of themselves than of intimacy, or, properly, the lack of intimacy. (It is, as all of us have probably experienced, possible to feel much lonelier when among other people than when alone.) This information clarified, among other things, why joining clubs, taking up group activities, or otherwise doing the obvious things to “meet people” can exacerbate rather than resolve loneliness. I think this is also why, for all the wonderful and cherished friendship and support I get from people I know only or mostly online, sometimes loneliness can still hit me like a punch in the gut, because my own careful (though not airtight) curation of my social media presence enforces boundaries that limit these relationships even as they necessarily protect me and mine. This is why Facebook can sometimes be so inadvertently hurtful, and why a busy day at work, surrounded by students and colleagues, can bring no relief at all to this underlying feeling, though it can be an excellent distraction from it. And this is why even an hour in the company of someone who really (really) knows you can be so profoundly restorative, both emotionally and psychologically (White discusses some research linking these effects to a fundamental human need for connection as a form of safety) — and why it is thus so difficult when these people are both rare and far away, in different time zones.
Finally, this also explains why even a very lonely person can crave solitude: it’s not just that one’s own inner resources and individual interests are crucial to resilience and personal fulfillment, but that when you are alone, you can (for better and for worse) just be yourself. I have thought a lot, recently, about the Marianne Moore line that “the cure for loneliness is solitude.” I don’t think that’s true (though I continue to be fascinated by stories of meaningful solitude). But in my experience at least, however paradoxical this seems, solitude can abate feelings of loneliness, offering emotional ease or tranquility that soothes even as it risks becoming melancholy.
In the end, I didn’t find Lonely a particular powerful book. It was too much of a memoir — for my purposes, it spent too much time on White’s own experience. As a “self-help” book it also doesn’t offer much constructive advice: White pushes for us to understand loneliness as a psychological condition that calls for therapeutic intervention as much as anything else, and I never did get much concrete sense of what such treatment might accomplish, of whether it’s ultimately a coping strategy (which, given her emphasis on chronic loneliness, is what I suspect) rather than a program for building the kinds of intimate relationships that seem to be the real fix. (I admit, though, that as I lost interest in the wealth of detail about White’s personal situation, I did start skimming, so perhaps I missed some information.) It was certainly interesting to know that loneliness is a genuine research field (White’s own generalizations, though, are based on detailed interviews with about 20 people, which doesn’t seem like that broad a sample) and to think about the ways researchers differentiate loneliness from, for instance, depression. Most of all, though, it was just useful to see loneliness parsed out in the ways White and the experts she consulted do. Understanding a problem better isn’t, in itself, necessarily going to change or fix anything, but naming things — describing them accurately — is always somewhat reassuring. With that improved understanding comes a bit of courage, I think.
Is there a better poetic evocation of loneliness than Arnold’s “To Marguerite, Continued”? Maybe, but its combination of personal yearning and existential angst still thrills me as much as it did when I was a yearning and somewhat solitary teenager.
Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.
But when the moon their hollows lights,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour—
Oh! then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent;
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent!
Now round us spreads the watery plain—
Oh might our marges meet again!
Who order’d, that their longing’s fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cool’d?
Who renders vain their deep desire?—
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.
Thank you for this. I am once again moved/impressed/delighted/engaged with how you achieve this graceful mix of the personal and analytical. Excellent and masterful.
Thanks so much for posting about this. It’s something I think about a lot, because I love solitude but do tend to struggle with loneliness, and your discussion of how loneliness is about a lack of intimacy makes a lot of sense. I have lots of opportunities for social connections, but they too often end up leaving me cold and sometimes lonelier than before because they stay shallow. There’s little opportunity to really know and be known in these circumstances, especially if you’re are reticent person, as I tend to be. Solitude ends up being easier and more comfortable, and I alternate between simply accepting solitude as the most suitable state for me, even if it means more bouts of loneliness, and wanting to seek out more intimate connections, despite the discomfort of doing so. (And I totally agree that the usual advice for this is pretty well useless and sometimes makes things worse.)
I struggled for many years with the kind of loneliness described here…and struggled also with people’s well-meant but essentially useless advice. Does the book address shyness/introversion at all? It seems to me that how shy/introverted people establish intimacy with others is quite different (and takes much longer) than how extroverts (or those mysterious new beings, ambiverts) do–but it’s always the extroverts advising us on how to break our various solitudes! E.g., after I’d moved to South Korea by myself, and having no one to talk to besides my students, getting advice over the phone from my exceptionally extroverted family members to just go out and meet people. Impossible, under any circumstances, never mind those involving serious language barriers.
Thanks for this post, Rohan.
Thank you all for your comments. At least we can all feel less alone in our loneliness …