As a condition loneliness is a condition which every human must experience at sometime in their life, and so why is it so difficult for us to talk about it honestly? Along with birth and death it is a defining experience. We can only be born once, we can only die once, but loneliness is something which we can all experience over and over. It can both define us and kill us and yet humans walk as though they are asleep when it comes to the condition in others.
One of the constant themes of my own growth and healing has been how I address and own the loneliness that I experience. It has not been an easy process and I admit I will never truly be without it. In group sessions I would listen to others managing as best they could with its effects. A repeated theme here in New York was the ability to feel overwhelming loneliness in the center of Times Square. How a person could stand in tears at the crossroads of the world, alone and crying, and not one person would stop to ask what was wrong. I didn’t need proof of their experience because I have been there myself and it is a cold place to be. When we talked we forgot our illnesses, our conditions, our syndromes, and all met on windswept pavements to weep together at the fact that we were lonely. Part of the healing was acknowledging the truth that you may be among the elite in this world, you may be considered a nobody, in the end you can still feel that there is nobody on the planet who thinks you worth listening to. Not talking to but listening to. And so in turn we would listen to each others voices and offer comfort. It was about acknowledging and accepting the condition not tying to fix it with a sticking plaster.
From that framework I learned one thing, that loneliness is a poison. As humans we have been conditioned to believe that the whole process of being lonely is something rather silly. We see it as being childish. Faint sympathy is the usual response to a problem that is so much more. We have fictionalized it so that there is always a happy ending for the lonely hero or heroine, Romeo or Juliet is just round the corner if we can only have hope and hang on. If we refuse to trust blindly that it will get better then there is no hope for us and we are left bleeding on the scrapheap of life. My issue with this response is that we are teaching that it is others that are the cure for loneliness and not addressing the causes. We need in truth a radically different approach when treating the effects of the poison.
Loneliness is not something which just goes away. Like slow poison it affects every part f our life over time and warps our way of thinking. The lonely person will not even necessarily believe that they are badly affected but in looking at their behaviors and responses the evidence is there. Loneliness is not cured by hundreds of connections but rather by making connections that are meaningful and speak to the spirit of the human. One true friend is better than a hundred people who you can’t even tell what their favorite color is let alone how they truly see the world. Some of the loneliest people are those who have the most friends on Facebook but this isn’t what we are taught. Instead we’re told the more people we know the better we will feel. We should go out and socialize, should intermingle, should try harder. Sound advice to someone who isn’t lonely, who doesn’t have self image issues, who isn’t so scared of rejection that they physically feel pain when dealing with people. Good advice in other words for the person who isn’t lonely. This approach has no healing or worth and should turn to ashes in the mouth of whoever gives it.
Thales is often quoted as being the father of “Know Thyself” Two simple words that when spoken sound like the slamming of temple doors. There is a power to the, a presence that demands. Strip away the old language and try whispering “it’s ok to know who you are and love them” and you have the same intent but without the fear and gut clenching. It is ok to know ourselves and to love ourselves to because that is ultimately where the healing begins when it comes to loneliness. It’s in self love and self worth. Loneliness can, and often does act exactly like a poison. If you poison someone with hemlock you only have to read the description of Socrates death to see how it spreads through the body until it ultimately kills. The same is true with loneliness. Isolation, rejection, ridicule can all be the point at which the poison is introduced. It may start in childhood with a family that is too busy, it may start when a young person leaves home and finds themselves cut off from the support of friends and family, it may start in later life when a person dares to be different but it has been introduced. The hope is that as the human grows things will change. Sometimes it does. But repeated experience reintroduces the poison and there can be a snapping point where experience overrides the chance for positive effects to have a healing effect. Thought patterns are changed. We actively begin to interpret any interaction in negative ways rather than positive ways. Loneliness in effect begins to poison how we perceive the outside world. If this was the death of Socrates we would have lost the ability to feel sensation in our hands and feet and the poison would be creeping up our arms and legs.
Humans being human we either try in more and more extreme ways to counteract the pain. Myself included, one way is by submission, by tying to change and become what I perceived the world wanted me to be. Changing appearance, changing my point of view, the way I thought and acted were all part of it. Every day I would sacrifice the real me on the altar of others opinion until it drove me to suicide attempts and the desperation to accept anything that would allow me to feel loved even though there was very little of me left to love. Those around me reinforced my lack of self worth with questions about whether I was wearing the right clothes because they knew better, why I refused to do things their way, again because they knew better, why I didn’t want to choose the friends that they chose because they knew better. My world was unacceptable and so loneliness truly took hold. In the end, try and change as I might, I was never good enough. Anger was turned in on myself because I didn’t have the courage to challenge the ones who were telling me I wasn’t good enough. The loneliness spread until I took extreme measures to cure it and I ended up at the point of suicide once more. a lot of the people I met in those groups were the same. They had turned everything the world in onto themselves and as a result were dealing with diagnoses of acute depression and suicidal tendencies. All because they couldn’t think and be the way that the world wanted. To make it worse a lot of the people around them were telling them it was their own fault rather than accepting the blame for putting my fiends there in the first place.
The second way I have seen people react is in exploding. When the reaction becomes too great and the pain too much to bear there is an outward expression. People, property, lives are hurt in those moments when someone says “I can’t take any more.”
As a society we need to recognize that loneliness is a killer, it is a poison that we are all guilty of allowing in to our populations. Religion and social groups do great damage when it comes to the protection of individuals and they use matters of faith as fact in order to justify their position. They allow the young homosexual to be poisoned with loneliness by telling him or her that they are not welcome in the group. Not because there is a scientific or genuine reason for their exclusion but because their god tells them it is so. That young person is also within a society that has been based on those same belief systems and which tells them they are not valuable. In the end huge numbers of people who have both value and worth both in society and to themselves are denied the right to live whole, full lives because of a whisper from the dark.
The same is true with racism. Think back to the playground and were any of the ethnic epithets nice? Did you say “frog” for a french man and “paki” for someone who looked like they were of Indian descent. Did you refer to the French as that nation which gave us awesome food, music, literature, and philosophy, instead give them an instant downgrade to the rank of amphibian? I’m old enough to remember when the word nigger was not something you heard black kids calling each other but used as a term of abuse. Now we have people who genuinely believe that it is their word and that they have owned it, made it theirs, taken the power of the word away. I hate to say it but if I was a racist I would find it much more satisfying watching the object of my disgust using the word to describe themselves. It would show they had finally learned the lesson. In the end all that has happened is that society has taught a group of humans to isolate itself and there in lies a path for loneliness.
There are very few words of hope that I can write because in stopping the process of loneliness and the harm it does we have to undo centuries of bad practice. But I will offer a thought. Each time you deal with a person think if your actions could diminish their view of themselves. Think how you may be enabling the feelings of not being a part of society. See the value in the individual and not in conforming to a set of values that may not apply. And learn to love yourself a little more, not because you are perfect and always right, but because you are human and allowed to fuck up. In order to fight loneliness we should “know ourselves and love ourselves, and each other, for who we are.”