Part One — What Loneliness Isn’t
There are moments when I realize my smallness in the universe — that whatever is unfolding in the movement of my life is unknown, unthought of, and inextricably meaningless to the people next to me and even around me; not to mention that it isn’t considered by the billions of beings and creatures who inhabit the very same universe.
Quite simply, no matter your chaos or how large your life seems, you will probably go unnoticed by the vast majority of the world.
Naturally then, there are reasonable grounds to sense that you do not belong in some way, shape, or form to some part of humanity’s diverse spectrum — you would not be alone in experiencing some form of loneliness.
Often, we reserve loneliness as an ailment for introverts or folks who have just moved to a new place with no connections or bonds to call their own. If you either choose to be isolated or have a personality that predisposes you to isolation, then, of course, you will be lonely, but that doesn’t solely account for loneliness’ experience. This is why some critiques of loneliness venture into the realm of, “Stop being lazy and anti-social.” If you would just do the seemingly easy work of talking to other people, you wouldn’t be lonely. As a result, loneliness becomes a fault to overcome. No respectable person ought to be lonely so, if you’re feeling alone, get up and do something about it.
The association of loneliness has unraveled to equate to someone locked in a room who just can’t consider putting themselves out into the world.
A slight problem with this stereotype is that even those who have constant, meaningful, and extroverted contact with others humans also express a sense of being lonely. While there are certainly large cases of loneliness — someone who feels constantly isolated from the world — most loneliness exists in the average moments of a day. What’s worse? Because loneliness has taken on such a negative insinuation, becoming a stigmatized taboo, we are left with a sense that if we do feel even a moment of loneliness, we certainly shouldn’t talk about it. If loneliness is supposedly weak, we can’t let others see that part of us, especially when all those others seem so strong.
We’re left with feeling that we might be the weird ones.
And we ignore the reality that in a world so full of so many humans, we might actually be fated to experience loneliness.
To be human is to feel alone.
To be honest about your place in the universe is to acknowledge that, sometimes, you might not feel like you belong.
Loneliness could very well be the most common concern of the general population that is the least talked about. We need to begin to see that this state of isolation, whether in a momentary glimpse or in a prolonged season of life, is quite normal and to be expected. Just because we have disguised the experience as an issue to be avoided doesn’t mean that we’ve hidden it from the purview of the general population — we just made it harder to be honest about.
So let’s begin by recognizing the stigma and dismissing its authority. If you have never felt loneliness, then I applaud your heroism; you may ignore what follows and go about your day. On the other hand, if you have ever wrestled with feeling alone, begin by addressing what you may have been told — that you are weak or lazy or have something wrong with you. Start by recognizing its normalcy and seeing that it might not be a bad thing, it just might be a common thing.
Once we start there, we can begin exploring what might cause loneliness and what we might do to mitigate the negative effects of a very normal thing.
We might even see that loneliness can reveal some benefits, as well.
Part Two — How Loneliness Becomes Normal
Getting rid of the stigma allows us to look more honestly and more practically at why loneliness happens.
My assumption is that, if you are still reading, you are in agreement with the framework that loneliness is not just a result of being lazy. With that agreement, however, let us also conclude that someone who tends towards introverted-ness is far more likely to feel alone. Please note that if loneliness is generally normal, it does not carry moral value. I’m sure there are several introverted types that would claim their sense of loneliness might actually be healthy at times. Also implied within this framework is that the causes might speak of potential destruction more than the experience of being alone itself.
To say simply that someone who feels alone is just anti-social or lazy, then, ignores that their decision to be alone might not be anti-social but rather a form of health or protection. Again, we need to be careful with the stigma.
So what are some underlying causes of loneliness that might point to potential unhealth?
What are some reasons we experience loneliness that might need confronted?
Let’s begin with one that follows as a potentially negative experience of the introverted response:
First — loneliness happens as a result of judgment.
Even if the judgment is only perceived, a real reason we might close ourselves off is because we don’t feel like we can belong. Maybe being introverted or anti-social, and the follow up of being lazy, is not the essence of what is happening. Maybe our tendency to choose isolation, if ‘choosing’ is indeed what is happening, is because we have sensed the world telling us that we deserve to be alone.
We’ve either been told or we have interpreted the world telling us that there is something wrong with us. Therefore, we are destined to be misunderstood, without value, and a detriment to those around us. This is why, even when you are surrounded by a community, if you are not held well by the people in that community, you will want to retreat to isolation.
Judgment has made us believe that we are destined and, even, required to be alone.
Second — loneliness happens as a result of technology.
I am by no means an authority on the subject of technology’s effects on human development and others have made this information better understood than I possibly can. I would refer to this video — The Innovation of Loneliness — for more details. What I can speak to is my experience, particularly in a rural area. Several decades ago, rural areas probably saw their most fulfilling form of connection. Neighborliness and community were not abstract principles or slogans, they were engrained ways of living. Farming homes are far apart, so what happens when you need help or you need supplies that you don’t have access to? You end up with a group of people whom you are dependent on because you do necessary things for each other.
The difference today is best illustrated by speaking with a member of the community from a previous generation who knew such neighborliness. If you walk down a road, they will tell you who used to live in each of the homes. When you ask who lives there now, they don’t know. The established neighborliness ended at some point where they can only refer to the community as how it used to be; their only connection is to the last people they experienced connection with — which now seems gone.
So what happened? Well, several things, certainly. But the central engine of the change seems to be technology. Pre World War II, our rural place was a one-day horse ride to the larger metropolis. Going into town wasn’t a thing. Therefore, livelihood had to be supplied by the people and the resources from the place. Once motor vehicles entered their normalcy, you were opened to the vast array of options and conveniences of the world; which also meant you didn’t need to depend on your place or your neighbors. You could drive to town, get everything you wanted, pull into your garage, do your life, and not see another soul.
In collusion, when homes are relatively far apart and you have the convenience of a telephone or the internet, you are no longer required to see people. You can make your connection through a wire and a screen. Convenient? Certainly. But in the end, it is still just a screen.
What technology has made possible is something that very few are willing to disagree with — this lifestyle is preferred even if for no other reason than its comfort. However, the real, honest, transparent, wholesome presence is now easier to leave behind. We have, as the video above suggests, lots of friends and connections so much so that we can ensure we never have to feel alone with the click of a button…and yet we are more lonely than ever.
Third — loneliness happens as a result of full schedules.
One of the ultimate measures of success in our culture is how busy you are. For some of us, we even feel deficient if every corner of our schedule is not filled with some occupying force. To be able to boast about how crazy life is and how much we chaotically run around is a source of pride.
However, we must again ask the question — “Have we lost anything?” If you are unlimited in the amount of contacts and interactions you have in a single day, how would that compare to a more focused investment in just a few folks? Is it possible to be many places and not actually be at any of them? Is it possible to be moving so much that you never have the time to see and to invest in where you are?
I have noticed that many of the grievances of loneliness come from an inability to make room or make time to belong and to be connected. We seem to be blinding ourselves to healthy and full relationships because it is easier to be busy. Could it be that we are setting ourselves up to be alone by ensuring that we are always somewhere as long as we don’t have to fully be anywhere?
I would be naive to claim that our loneliness is only a result of these items, but I do think these are the most foretelling and the most impactful. We are more globalized than ever, yet our seemingly infinite reach has made us both more aware of our smallness and more inclined to escape the sort of presence what would fulfill our desire and our yearning to belong. Without a nexus for real, physical, meaningful, and healthy connection, we will have a greater likelihood to feel alone.
I wonder what would result in a culture that prioritizes this detached sort of presence above anything else?
You could say, loneliness might become more and more normal.
But wait, there’s more.
Part Three — The Overarching Cause of Loneliness
Let’s assume a globalized norm full of access to lots of information from lots of people. There is a more concise explanation for our loneliness that is at the root of the experience of being alone. Further, what’s interesting about this component is that it transcends cultural, technological, and societal norms throughout history. In fact, when examining the prose and poetry of lonely folks throughout the ages, this reason offers a more full groundwork of the symptom of loneliness.
It is called Psychological Asymmetry.
The main thrust of this concept is that you know yourself from the inside — you know the fullness of your thoughts, emotions, desires, strangeness, and complexity — but you only know others from the outside. While heightened by social media, humans have always had a limited and edited data set of who another person is that you will only get access to if they choose to share and if they are able to share that information.
Social media heightens this because of our ability to vastly limit what we make public and our ability to edit every detail of what we communicate (and what we don’t) as well as how we portray ourselves in images and videos.
We are left with the disappointing reality that you can never know someone else like you know yourself.
Everyone, even those closest to you, are strangers compared to how well you know you.
What do you suppose will happen if you are constantly faced with your intense interior, in all of its forms, while comparing it to the external ambiguity of everyone else? First, we will, out of proper rationalization given the access of information, assume we are far more peculiar than others. While being allowed into the head and body of another would probably curtail this assumption, complete empathy is only an ideal and we will always be left with less knowledge about the details of others as we have of ourselves.
Second, we may begin to assume that, because of our strangeness compared to their limited data set, we are offensive to others. We begin to be shy or intimidated because we assume they can see us fully, warts and all. We ostracize ourselves as outcasts to the mass of people who seem so normal. We begin to assume that they can’t possibly know us and like us. So we kindly remove ourselves from their honorable presence.
Psychological Asymmetry can make loneliness & isolation appear as the only realistic outcomes.
The issue is that we don’t believe we can be both honest and accepted. What might be ideal to share will certainly be disturbing to society. If we are vulnerable and transparent, we won’t be understood and they may even be disturbed by us.
So we accept the fate that our lives and our pain are ours to endure alone.
We either accept loneliness or we commit to being fake.
As stated, the human condition has left us with no apparent other option than to be alone.
Part Four — Three Remedies
First, we need to reconcile that loneliness itself has no moral value and that the stereotypes of weakness or failure should not be a natural association. We proudly proclaim that no respectable person ought to be lonely, usually as a means to disguise our own loneliness, and forget that loneliness is common, it is normal, and it is even sometimes necessary. The stigma doesn’t reflect reality.
But secondly, we must also acknowledge that we will never get rid of loneliness. Not only is feeling alone normal, but it is also natural. Loneliness is not some disease or ailment and therefore doesn’t need a cure, but in remedying the experience, we must also accept its inevitability.
That being stated, what are healthy responses to our loneliness?
Once we’ve accepted and seen loneliness correctly, how do we engage with it in a productive way?
1 — Embrace the possibility of loneliness’ benefits.
Whether the necessity of rest or the necessity of removing yourself from toxic interaction, being alone doesn’t equate with being bad or wrong. There ought to be room for a detached, disconnected state in the rhythm of relationships, especially if those relationships are causing harm. Call it boundaries, but sometimes we need to be alone. We need to be able to fully be present with ourselves within our journey. We need to be able to understand and accept our depths. To be true to yourself, you have to know what is in there and while many folks maintain constant connection like a drug to escape from having to confront the depths of their soul, being alone can give us room to see ourselves fully.
What embracing loneliness also does is give us permission to be honest about our smallness in the world. While uncomfortable or even bringing us discord, accepting your finitude and realizing that no matter how important or big or necessary you want to be, your life is a blip of breath and the that there are over 7 billion people who don’t even know you exist, can be a healthy reminder of your own humanity.
I often, especially in times of distress, find myself contemplating how the person who just drove by my house or the person I encountered earlier in the day, does not share my sense of identity. Acknowledging your loneliness and, therefore, your smallness is a healthy reminder that the world does not revolve around you, that it is not arraigned for your pleasure, and that it is not responsible for your life; instead, it is what holds your small life. A poem on gratefulness says it this way:
To be grateful is to be powerless;
it is acknowledging that life and breath and all that is
somehow exists way beyond
It is opening yourself up to the reality that the world
beautifully transcends the simple essence of your being.
Which is, in itself, a reason to be grateful.
While staying permanently in a place of feeling alone is not recommend, embracing those spaces of feeling lost in the world can give you permission that you don’t have to solve the world’s problems, you only need to act appropriately with your small life in the small place that you are generously given to be. Let yourself be a human being, embracing the overwhelming humility of your life.
Which is great and verbose, but what do we actually do to mitigate loneliness?
2 — Expose ourselves to art.
This one comes from Alain de Botton who also has popularized “Psychological Asymmetry.” Exposing ourselves to art — to honest, darker stories about the reality of the world and its human beings — is a way to mitigate the tension of assuming we are the weird ones.
The best art, which isn’t always the most popular or highest selling art, has typically sought to express the world in a more realistic way. Artists are those who take up the call to show the world as it is. In conjunction, they are usually the ones who have felt Psychological Asymmetry the most and have set themselves to be honest about their life, their perspective, and the world as they see it — often out of an act of desperation.
We have a plethora of stories, paintings, poetry, movies, songs, and expressions of life that are powerful reminders that others are more like us than we might have assumed.
This is also why Reality TV, commodity art, and other mainstream acts that are primarily interested in the extrinsic motivation of profit are not good art — because they aren’t interested in speaking truth of the world’s existence and reality.
3 — Be vulnerable.
The act of direct communication is a way to mitigate our loneliness — can we be present as transparently and authentically as possible and still belong? Now, there is a necessity of realizing that an unhealthy relationship cannot handle vulnerability, but when a group of people can be powerless with each other in secure proximity, we will reveal our deepest selves to them while being handed their deepest selves and we are more likely to see that we aren’t that different.
When a community can do this together, it is a healthy community — it is the act of belonging in its most basic sense.
If we can know as much as possible about one another and still belong to one another, we will realize that we aren’t as alone as we might have thought.
While simply having the posture of vulnerability will bring us into more and more intimate contact, negating the physical experience of being alone, when we begin to etch away at the depth another, we will find a world much more suitable for likes of us who, otherwise, might have assumed we would always be alone.