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.
This image is Dreams II by Heinrich Vogeler.