On Loneliness

I’ve been thinking about loneliness lately, because friends of mine have been feeling it to various degrees, and of course I’ve felt it at various times in my life. It seems an important topic to address, and one we don’t address very often. It’s one we don’t want to address, I think because it’s an emotion we’re ashamed of feeling, as though we should somehow be sufficient onto ourselves. As though if we were stronger, strong enough, we would not feel it.

And yet we’re human beings, made to connect with one another. We evolved as social animals, and without that connection, we feel a little lost, a little aimless. We don’t quite know what to do. It’s as though we are all, after all, incomplete, and are completed only by each other. Not one of us is sufficient onto ourselves.

And so I thought, what is it, exactly? What is loneliness?

There was a quotation I put on my tumblr a while back: “Loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you.” –Carl Jung

I think that starts to get at what loneliness is. It’s not being alone, and people often say they can be lonelier in a crowd than by themselves. That’s because in a crowd, the lack of connection becomes more obvious to them — they feel it more. I think Jung is right to stress that loneliness comes from a lack of communication, of genuine interaction. But I want to offer a different definition:

Loneliness comes from being treated as a means rather than an end.

We all want to be seen, and to mean, as ends: as the people we are, as complete wholes. And yet so often we exist for other people as means, as the parent who will raise them, the spouse who will support them, the teacher who will help them. That’s unavoidable: we will always to a certain extent be seen as means. But we also need to be seen as ends, and when we’re not — that’s when we get lonely. When we are in a crowd and feel as though we’re not seen. I suppose that’s why fame also creates a kind of loneliness — you become a means for other people, who read you or watch you. You become a part of their internal landscape, but it is not after all you. It it whoever they imagine you are.

We all need at least one person in the world to see us as we are, and to accept that. To love that, because the opposite of loneliness is being loved, and loving is seeing and accepting.

And you know what? It is very difficult to find. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because at heart, we are all impatient and afraid, and truly knowing and valuing another person takes time and vulnerability. We all want to be loved, without necessarily doing the work of loving. But it doesn’t really work that way, does it? You have to do both. One way out of loneliness is loving, but you need it back, eventually. It can’t simply go one way, which is why taking care of a child can be a lonely endeavor — a child, no matter how affectionate, can’t yet see you as you are, and won’t for years.

I feel as though I should have some sort of grand pronouncement here at the end, but all I have is this: try to find people who love you, and love them back. I think it’s as simple and as difficult as that.

Dreams II by Heinrich Vogeler

This image is Dreams II by Heinrich Vogeler.

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9 Responses to On Loneliness

  1. I’m glad you’re back to blogging. I missed reading posts from a voice I can connect with. Your last sentence wraps it all up…the cure to loneliness is as simple and difficult as that.

  2. Jon Awbrey says:

    Can we ever become what we weren’t in eternity?
    Can we ever learn what we weren’t born knowing?
    Can we ever share what we never had in common?

  3. Dave Kind says:

    A monarchy in a queen bed, that may be the loneliest state in the world.

  4. MT says:

    Thank you for this post it is perfect timing! A friend and I have been discussing this very topic. I agree there is a sense of being loved conditionally by those who are geographically closest to us. Often we take those in our immediate circles for granted. Someone is “mom” before they are “a person with dreams and hopes of their own” or a “co- worker” instead of “someone who is longing to break free as a poet or a inspiration to the world”.

    So often we don’t really see each other. But on those rare occasions when we do feel seen the moment can be one of great meaning for years. I’ve had a few of those moments and they are like a balm to my soul. I’ve also on occasion been The Seer for others, (I would love to be more present more often…but alas often I am not) and there is more depth and meaning in Seeing someone than trying to fix them or find their answers for them. You can feel the difference in that kind of exchange, it some times can bring me to tears. The moment when you see the weight of loneliness lift for a second. It feels like medicine. Because you cannot see without being seen, when both people in the exchange suddenly feel the Love in such an exchange, both people cannot help but be touched by it. We would need to spend much less in therapy if humans could remember we once did this for each other, and long for it to happen more often.

    I can get there easier in meditation when I hit a deep Stillness and everything, for a moment,. is suspended I feel so light and perfect and then it is over. It is a fleeting glimpse into Love, but a greater Love than most anyone has offered me. Because it is unconditional, what ever the force is in that moment is, I can feel it wants nothing from me except to sit for a while in silence. You are right though Theodora we need this also from our fellow humans, we cannot be islands unto ourselves.

    It is indeed as difficult and as easy as that! Phew! You rock! I want to send your post to my friend who has been part of this discussion as well.

    Many thanks!

    • I love your comment: there are so many good things in it to think about! I would address them more specifically, but really what I want to say is, yes, I agree! 🙂

  5. Jon Awbrey says:

    I remember a book on loneliness by Clark Moustakas from many years ago.

  6. Elaine says:

    I keep coming back to this to re-read it, it’s beautiful and apposite. I have been lonely in relationships for I think the very reason you describe; my partner took without giving back. I am now (I hope) in the very beginning stages of getting to know someone, and I take your comments about wanting to be treated as an end rather than as a means, and your later post about being seen, as touchstones for how to learn about them and become friends before anything else.

  7. You provide an interesting perspective on Jung’s quote. The “one person in the world to see us as we are, and to accept that” should however be YOU and not somebody else. If you don’t love yourself then you will always look for company to feel less alone and less lonely. Accepting yourself for WHOM – and not WHAT – you are, is one of the hardest goals to achieve in the lives of many people. When you finally do then you will cherish your solitude and rarely refer to it as loneliness.

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