The Central and Inevitable Fact of Human Existence
Writer Thomas Wolfe (1900–1938), after years of seeking happiness, articulated his gloomy assessment of life: The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence . . . and that morning—bright, shining morning with its promise of new beginnings—will never come upon the earth again as it did once.
From a biblical perspective, the loneliness Wolfe described is the result of being separated from God. His assessment is penetrating, but it fails to acknowledge the open arms of Christ.
Like all of us, Wolfe desperately needed Jesus, but coming to him requires confession and submission. Without the miraculous intervention of God, our default is to choose our imaginary self-sufficiency over dependence on God . . . which requires humility…
Psychiatrist Paul D. Meier writes, I have had millionaire businessmen come to my office and tell me they have big houses, yachts, condominiums . . . , nice children, a beautiful mistress, an unsuspecting wife, secure corporate positions—and suicidal tendencies. They have everything this world has to offer except one thing—inner peace and joy. They come to my office as a last resort, begging me to help them conquer the urge to kill themselves.
The Cost of Loneliness
Administrators of one of the largest hospitals in America cite loneliness as a major reason for overcrowded emergency rooms. Parkland Hospital of Dallas, Texas, made this startling discovery as they were looking for ways to unclog the system. They analyzed data and compiled a list of high utilizers.
They identified eighty patients who went to four emergency rooms 5,139 times in a twelve-month period, costing the system more than $14 million. Once they identified the names of these repeat visitors, they commissioned teams to meet with them and determine the reason. Their conclusion? Loneliness. Poverty and food shortage were contributing factors, but the number one determinant was a sense of isolation. The ER provided attention, kindness, and care. Hence, the multiple return visits. They wanted to know that someone cares.
The Dreaded Dullness
In his novel, The Pale King, David Foster Wallace discusses the issue of boredom, or, as he puts it, dullness:
. . . Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like “deadly dull”or “excruciatingly dull” come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.
Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly. . . . But surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUV’s backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called “information society” is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
How Strangers Become Friends
There’s been a lot of talk about friendship because of Facebook and the internet. You can collect friends and “likes” and begin to feel pretty good about yourself, depending on how many you accumulate. Our foundation, the John & Vera Mae Perkins Foundation, has about 3,500 likes right now, and I suppose that’s pretty good. But I’m not sure that’s the kind of friendship that is strong enough to carry us through and across the hard lines that have isolated us from each other. I think you can actually have a lot of those kinds of friends and still be lonely, separated, and afraid.
Columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. tells of a conversation Marc Dunkelman had twenty years ago with his grandfather, a retired salesman. They talked about how to find the best restaurants in an unfamiliar city. Marc was excited about a new app that would make it easy for people to find the best places to eat and that would even show them which restaurants were nearby. But his grandfather was not as eager to embrace this new technology.
He said that whenever he went on a sales trip to a new place he would look for a “friendly looking stranger” and ask him to recommend a good place to eat. In the process this stranger would often become a new friend and someone that he would see when he returned to the city. “That’s how I got to understand the world—by talking to strangers,” the older man said. “With all these fancy technologies you’re talking about, how are people going to get to know one another? You ask me, I think it’s going to make everyone lonely.”
Loneliness and Terror
In a popular essay for the online magazine Aeon, Nabeelah Jaffer elaborates on a theme found in the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s work, that is the connection between loneliness and terror:
‘Loneliness is the common ground of terror’ – and not just the terror of totalitarian governments, of which Hannah Arendt was thinking when she wrote those words in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). It also generates the sort of psychic terror that can creep up on a perfectly ordinary individual, cloaking everything in a mist of urgent fear and uncertainty.
True thought, for Arendt, involved the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. True loneliness, therefore, was the opposite. It involved the abrupt halting of this internal dialogue: ‘the loss of one’s own self’ – or rather, the loss of trust in oneself as the partner of one’s thoughts. True loneliness means being cut off from a sense of human commonality and therefore conscience. You are left adrift in a sea of insecurity and ambiguity, with no way of navigating the storms.
Taken from Nabeelah Jaffer in the article “In Extremis: Loneliness is the Common Ground of Terror and Extremism”, Adeon.co
To be Lonely is to be Human
No person has ever walked our earth and been free from the pains of loneliness. Rich and poor, wise and ignorant, faith-filled and agnostic, healthy and unhealthy have all alike had to face and struggle with its potentially paralyzing grip. It has granted no immunities. To be human is to be lonely. To be human, however, is also to respond.
The human person has always responded to this pain. The response has varied greatly. Sometimes loneliness has led us to new heights of creativity, and sometimes it has led us to drugs, alcohol, and emotional paralysis; sometimes it has led us to the true encounter of love and authentic sexuality, sometimes it has led us into dehumanizing relationships and destructive sexuality; sometimes it has moved us to a greater depth of openness toward God and others, to fuller life, and sometimes it has led us to jump off bridges, to end life;
sometimes it has given us a glimpse of heaven, sometimes it has given us a glimpse of hell; sometimes it has made the human spirit, sometimes it has broken it; always it has affected it. For loneliness is one of the deepest, most universal, and most profound experiences that we have.
Whether young or old, Americans are feeling more isolated. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, about half of Americans have weekly interactions with their neighbors, which means half of us don’t. A survey by AARP found about one-third of respondents over the age of forty-five are lonely. And according to the American Psychological Association, loneliness and social isolation have similar effects on health as obesity and can lead to premature death.
No surprise, social media doesn’t help the feelings of isolation. We can have serious fear of missing out (FOMO) when it seems we aren’t invited to the places everyone else is (or even have the same number of likes or comments as someone else). The opposite is also true. When we replace a virtual meet-up with a real one, we can decrease our actual isolation.
Social Media Makes us Feel Lonely and Isolated
It turns out that the people who reported spending the most time on social media—more than two hours a day—had twice the odds of perceived social isolation than those who said they spent a half hour per day or less on those sites. And people who visited social media platforms most frequently, 58 visits per week or more, had more than three times the odds of perceived social isolation than those who visited fewer than nine times per week.
Katherine Hobson, “Feeling Lonely? Too Much Time on Social Media May Be Why,” NPR, March 6, 2017.
St. Anthony and the Search for God Amidst Crisis
Given life’s unpredictability and the inevitability of pain and hardship, what do we do when that pain and hardship show up on our doorsteps? In roughly AD 270, there was a man in Lower Egypt named Antony. He was born into wealth and had everything going for him. He had access to a great education and two loving parents who owned three hundred acres of productive fruit trees.
In a region of the world that was difficult to tame because of the climate, his parents were self-sustaining, and Antony had the security of a great inheritance awaiting him some day. But when he was around eighteen years old, one of those life crises swept in on the young man: both of his parents died. He was now alone and heartbroken. Mercifully, financial security was not going to be a problem for him, though money could not replace the love of his parents. One Sabbath day, Antony, a God-fearing man, was going up to the Lord’s house and found himself reflecting on the early Christians.
He was pondering how many of them sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the poor. As he walked into the temple, the priest was beginning his homily, and the gospel reading that day happened to be about Jesus talking to the rich man: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).
Antony, cut to the heart by Jesus’ words, left the temple that day, arranged for the sale of his land, and distributed the money among the town’s poor. He then headed for the desert. We now know him as Saint Antony, one of the desert fathers, one of those John the Baptist–like cave-dwelling figures who gave himself over to the ascetic life. Sainthood, though, is often misunderstood. We think of it as an exercise in rugged individuality, a Lone Ranger’s attempt at holiness. Being newly orphaned and having given away his possessions, Antony was the perfect candidate to strike out on his own, but he modeled a different kind of sainthood. A biography written by one of his apprentices says,
If he heard of a good man anywhere, like the prudent bee he went forth and sought him, nor turned back to his own place until he had seen him; and he returned, having got from the good man as it were supplies for his journey in the way of virtue. . . . He subjected himself in sincerity to the good men whom he visited and learned thoroughly where each surpassed him in zeal and discipline.
He observed the graciousness of one and the unceasing prayer of another. He took knowledge of one’s freedom from anger and another’s loving-kindness; he gave heed to one as he watched, to another as he studied. One he admired for his endurance, another for his fasting and sleeping on the ground; the meekness of one and the long-suffering of another he watched with care, while he took note of the piety towards Christ and the mutual love which animated all. Thus filled, he returned to his own place of discipline, and henceforth would strive to unite the qualities of each and was eager to show in himself the virtues of all.
Saint Antony’s story is one of finding wisdom and help in the rubble, in the heartbreaking loneliness of an orphan’s life, and of finding these gifts even in the desert.
The UK’s Minister of Loneliness
According to a 2018 CIGNA study, loneliness in America has reached “epidemic” levels. After surveying twenty thousand adults, researchers found that 46 percent felt alone either sometimes or always, 47 percent felt left out, and 27 percent rarely or never felt as though there were people who really understood them.
As a point of comparison, the percentage of Americans who reported feeling frequently lonely was between 11 and 20 percent in the 1970s and 1980s. Chronic loneliness not only results in physical and mental disorders, but it also increases the odds of early death. And it’s not something that only Americans experience. Governments from Denmark to Japan have taken loneliness as a serious societal problem.
In 2018, the United Kingdom’s prime minister appointed a Minister of Loneliness to address what was felt to be a serious health issue. Approximately two million people over the age of 75 across England reported going weeks without any meaningful social interaction. The World Health Organization now lists the lack of “social support networks” as a determinant of health.
The Uniqueness of Conversation (And why Technology Can’t Replace In-Person Communication)
In an interview with MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, Megan Garber asks what makes in-person conversation unique, compared to all the other ways we communicate these days:
Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. “You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,” Turkle says. “It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow.
You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.”
Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, “the boring bits.”
In software terms, they’re features rather than bugs. The logic of conversation as it plays out across the Internet, however—the into-the-ether observations and the never-ending feeds and the many, many selfies—is fundamentally different, favoring showmanship over exchange, flows over ebbs. The Internet is always on. And it’s always judging you, watching you, goading you. “That’s not conversation,” Turkle says.
Why We Text and Drive
In this poignant social commentary, the comedian Louis C.K. points out why it is that people are constantly staring at their cell-phones: because they don’t want to acknowledge the loneliness that is inherent to human life. Note: the editor of this illustration would like to make it clear they are aware of the inappropriate behavior that Louis C.K. has admitted to in the past few years. It is our opinion that this material from Louis C.K. retains value and thus has been added to the site. Not that it condones some of his alleged behavior:
What the phones are taking away is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty, forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there. And sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car, and you start going, “Oh no, here it comes. That I’m alone.” It starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it. . . .
That’s why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100 percent of the people driving are texting. And they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.
Louis CK on Conan O’Brien, TBS, September 19, 2013.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Loneliness. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!