Saturday, October 23, 2010

3 ways to deal with loneliness

I'm reading the book An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin (published in the UK in 1994), which describes how people throughout history and all over the world have tackled problems that he claims are common to people in all times and places.

Each of the 25 chapters is on a different one of these problems. There's a chapter on how people have dealt with — or, in his preferred metaphor, immunized themselves against — loneliness. He takes this problem extremely seriously:

The fear of loneliness has been like a ball and chain restraining ambition, as much of an obstacle to a full life as persecution, discrimination or poverty. Until the chain is broken, freedom, for many, will remain a nightmare. . . .

Feminists were the latest group to be thwarted by it. Simone de Beauvoir's idea that work would be a protection, a better one than the family, proved mistaken. Even she, who claimed 'I am sufficient to myself', found she needed someone who could 'make me pleased with myself'; even she was 'made stupid by falling in love'; even she felt lonely when Sartre, in his last years, was no longer himself. All movements for freedom come to a halt at the wall of loneliness. . . .

Fifty-nine per cent of those who say they feel lonely are women, and 41 per cent men, but it is impossible to be sure what reticence conceals . . . (60)
There may be a reporting bias here, if women are generally encouraged to be open about their feelings more than men.

Zeldin corrects a misconception about the history of loneliness:
The story we are usually told is this: in the beginning everybody lived cosily in a family or tribe, people did not originally even know what loneliness was, never conceiving of themselves as separate individuals. Then suddenly, quite recently, togetherness crumbled. . . .

But it is not true that loneliness is a modern ailment. The Hindus in one of their oldest myths say that the world was created because the Original Being was lonely. Even when all humanity was religious, there were sufferers from loneliness, as the prophet Job, in the fourth century BC, testified . . . :

'My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me. They that dwell in mine house . . . count me for a stranger: I am an alien in their sight. . . . ' (60-61)
So how have people fought loneliness? Here are 3 of the 4 ways, according to Zeldin:

You can become a "hermit":
They were men and women who felt out of place in the world, who did not like its greed, cruelty, and compromises, or who believed they were misunderstood; as one of them, Narcissus, Bishop of Jerusalem, said in the year 212, 'Weary of the world's slanders against him, he retired to the wilderness.' Instead of feeling alienated in society, they left it to become professional aliens, aiming deliberately to be 'strangers' or 'exiles' . . . . The reward they sought was internal peace. Some subjected themselves to painful mortifications, almost starving, or tying themselves up with heavy chains, or living in graves, in order to have spiritual illuminations; some became deranged; but the famous ones were those who triumphed and emerged with a sense of having discovered the realities that mattered; and they radiated an internal peace which was immensely impressive: admirers flocked to get their blessing. (61)
There's another bias: success bias. We glorify whoever is most successful, without looking at how everyone who followed their path turned out.

2. You can stay a part of society but cultivate your individuality:
The Romantics claimed that each individual combines human attributes in a unique way, and that one should aim at expressing one's uniqueness in one's manner of living, just like an artist expressing himself in his creative act. . . . 'The truly spiritual man feels something higher than sympathy' [the quote is from August Wilhelm Schlegel]: he feels the individuality of other people, and he considers that individuality sacred, not because of how important or powerful its possessor is, but because it is individuality. Such opinions expanded the dreams of the Renaissance by demanding that one should like a person because he is different. (66)
3. You can pursue and associate yourself with some "truth" out of a sense that you're part of larger network of truths:
The final form of immunisation has been achieved by thinking that the world is not just a vast, frightening wilderness, that some kind of order is discernible in it, and that the individual, however insignificant, contains echoes of that coherence. People who believe in some supernatural power have their loneliness mitigated by the sense that, despite all the misfortunes that overwhelm them, there is some minute divine spark inside them . . . . Much of what is called progress has been the result of solitary individuals saved from feeling totally alone, even when persecuted, by the conviction that they have grasped a truth, a fragment of a much wider one too large to capture. (68-69)
That could explain why people write nonfiction books.
But getting beyond loneliness in this way does not eliminate all forms of loneliness, any more than one vaccination will protect against all forms of disease. (69)
He says none of these are surefire ways to fight loneliness. You still need other people "for clear thoughts and for knowing where one wants to go; only knowledge of humanity's previous experience can save on from suffering disillusionment." (70)

He concludes:
Having won the right to be alone, to be an exception to generalisations (which can be even more dangerous to freedom than generals), having freed oneself from the generalisation that humans are condemned to suffer from loneliness, one can stand it on its head: turn being alone upside down and it becomes adventure.

(Video via + via.)


Jim Ament said...

Coupled with your post on introverts from October 15th, this post offers some related thoughts. I happen to be a flaming introvert; and therefore being alone has never been my measure of loneliness. I particularly liked the final comment: "Having won the right to be alone, to be an exception to generalisations (which can be even more dangerous to freedom than generals), having freed oneself from the generalisation that humans are condemned to suffer from loneliness, one can stand it on its head: turn being alone upside down and it becomes adventure."