Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On Loneliness

I was reading the latest issue* of The Sun Magazine this evening, when I came across these two entries in Sy Safransky's Notebook:

If only I knew what my cats are thinking. If only I knew what the birds are singing. If only I knew why people who speak the same language rarely understand each other.

* * *

How alone I feel this morning, as alone as the earth in photographs taken from space. But am I alone? Really? Here on this planet with 6 billion brothers and sisters? Our superficial differences keep me from recognizing how much we have in common -- starting with the undeniable fact that we're all alive and breathing the same air. Breathing in. Breathing out. Hearts expanding with love and hearts contracting with fear. Is there anything I'm experiencing right now that hasn't also been experienced by innumerable others -- even my loneliness, my sadness, my longing for something I can't name?

Reading this reminded me of the following bit from my friend Trevor's travel blog Where the Hell Is My Towel?:

There is no night culture here. I miss that sense of camaraderie I used to feel whenever I'd be out driving at four in the morning in the rain and I'd pass some other lonely pair of headlights going the opposite direction. It was the strongest sense of understanding I've ever felt. There is nothing like that here...

I was also reminded of this piece from Natalie Goldberg's book for writers called Writing Down the Bones:

Last night I was sitting with a very old friend in my living room. "You know, Natalie, I know you've talked about being lonely, but last week when I was really lonely, I felt that I was the only person in the world who ever felt it." That's what loneliness is about. If we felt connected to people, even other lonely people, we wouldn't feel alone anymore.

When I was separated from my husband, [my mentor] Katagiri Roshi said to me, "You should live alone. You should learn about that. It is the terminal abode."

"Roshi, will I get used to loneliness?"

"No, you don't get used to it. I take a cold shower every morning and every morning it shocks me, but I continue to stand up in the shower. Loneliness always has a bite, but learn to stand up in it and not be tossed away."

Later that year I went to Roshi again: "It's really hard. I come home and I'm alone and I get panicky." He asked me what I did when I was alone. Suddenly, it had a fascination. "Well, I wash the dishes, I daydream and doodle on pieces of paper, draw hearts and color them in. I pick the dead leaves off the plants and I listen to music a lot." I began to study my own desolation and I became interested in it. I stopped fighting it.

Goldberg goes on to discuss how writers can use loneliness as a tool for expression. "Reach out of the deep chasm of loneliness and express yourself to another human being," she writes.

To be sure, loneliness is a nearly universal human emotion - at least in our culture. Isn't this fact one of life's greatest ironies?

But perhaps that is not so unexpected. After all, it's well-established by social scientists that the intimacy provided by companionship and relationships is a significant human need. But our own life experience will tell us that, won't it?

Loneliness compels us to seek further and greater companionship -- or to flip that around, loneliness is merely a symptom of the (hopefully temporary) inability to connect with other humans in an intimate way. Since humans are such an interconnected and interdependent species, perhaps loneliness itself plays a fundamental role in our survival. So ponder that next time you're feeling sorry for yourself and listening to your entire collection of The Cure records on a rainy day. ;)

Any sociologists, psychologists, biologists, or other scientists out there - or anyone else for that matter - want to share your ideas on the function and role of loneliness?

Any artists want to share how you use loneliness as inspiration for your work?

What do you do to overcome loneliness? How do you use it to your advantage?

*As of today, May 20, the May issue is still posted online so you won't find this entry from the June issue.

1 comment:

  1. did you read the recent thing (i saw it on yahoo news) about how some people's brains are more wired to be "people people"? i found that very interesting. maybe some people are a tiny bit more okay with being lonely. i for one am a people person. but also, i think because of this fact and the fact that there is always someone around and i have a big family and i'm married and all that, i am never ever lonely. i can remember being lonely about once in my adult life. in a weird way, i kind of feel like i'm missing out because i know inspiration comes from that little bite that natalie goldberg's friend reminded her about. (i love her by the way) hte "longing for something that i can't name" that safransky talks about is a different story and something i feel often and acutely and it is somewhat akin to bliss. i believe that everyone has moments like that, so it does ultimately connect us all to each other and has something to do with the spirit and with motion and time and love. anyway interesting post. keep it up! your words are always thought provoking.