If you have ever stood in a crowded room and felt completely alone then you understand that loneliness is not the same as being alone. For a lonely person crowds will often serve to amplify, not decrease, the loneliness.
Psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a leading researcher in the phenomenon of loneliness in the late 1950’s, said it best with a simple statement: “Loneliness is a lack of intimacy.”
In my own studies and experience I couldn’t agree more. Being alone has nothing to do with loneliness. Loneliness is a signal that something is off in one’s world of intimacy; that is, a deep disconnection from others, and, on a fundamental level, a disconnection from oneself.
Our modern society sure doesn’t help. We are ruined from top to bottom with synthetic relationships. For many people every day is an adventure in counterfeit existence starting with the siren call of a digital alarm clock, a processed breakfast, and a plastic car which guides us through jungles of concrete and glass to a place of work or school where every social encounter is governed by endless manufactured rules of engagement, complete with professional masks to hide every last vestige of the person behind the eyes. Ironically, all throughout the day many of us feel a glimmer of our real selves through our patently contrived interactions on social networking sites where we are protected from the “other” by two digital screens and a satellite.
It seems dire. It seems that loneliness has the upper hand to such an extent that the fight can only be maintained through coping mechanisms of escape, be it some form of addiction or some general form of neurosis.
But there is hope. One can defeat loneliness in a world of pervasive superficiality in a manner so simple that it turns out to be one of the most difficult things ever.
One will find endless “techniques” to fight loneliness in the psychology literature, and some of them are quite good. A few of my favorites are: (a) the reframing of loneliness as a signal to change one’s ways versus surrendering to despair, (b) the reorienting of one’s focus from chronic loneliness to one’s strengths and interests where a degree of cognitive choice can be used in changing one’s perceptions of life, (c) meditating on the paradox of loneliness, that is, as discussed above, the differences between being alone and being lonely, and (d) finding opportunities to interact with raw nature by taking a walk in a park, fishing, camping, star-gazing, etc.
But techniques are never a complete art. Just as learning a technique or two in boxing hardly makes one Muhammad Ali, learning a technique or two to solve an acute psychological problem never made anyone a master of their soul.
If one truly struggles with loneliness there are no easy, effortless remedies. The remedy is an earnest venture of intimacy with one’s self.
And lest one would accuse me of passing off the most important measure of intimacy – one’s intimacy with God – I remind the reader of Christ’s own words: “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” One does not gain intimacy with God if one deals fraudulently with oneself. If the kingdom of heaven is within then entering the kingdom requires seeking ones true self amid the layers of self-trickery. The bulk of the ascetic struggle, which all are called to regardless of occupation, is to rid ourselves of the passions which so easily shipwreck our faith. As saint Mark the Ascetic (5th century) said, “Our outward life should accord with our inner progress, and our prayers to God with our life.”
Loneliness is indeed a signal that something is unbalanced in one’s psycho-spiritual life, and the only way to get at the bottom of it is by close, honest self-monitoring. However, self-monitoring does not mean independence in the pursuit; one more venture in individuality, the same sort of beast that got us in this mess to begin with.
It is my experience that the vast majority of people require the help of another person in this work. It makes sense that if loneliness is intrinsically tied to a dysfunction of intimacy then the healing process will require the aid of a human relationship.
This relationship can be found in any number of places: a spouse, a good friend, a counselor, a minister, etc. I’m one of the lucky ones who has a very wise spouse, amazing friends, and a God-sent priest to help me in my journey. But even if one has none of the above (which was my case for the much of my life) one can always find a skilled counselor to join their fight.
One final note: defeating loneliness does not require one to physically transcend his or her synthetic modern world, as in, say, retreating into the wilderness to become one with nature. If that were the case the vast majority of us wouldn’t stand a chance. No, defeating loneliness requires transcending one’s own self-imposed isolation from one’s true self. This battle is as simple as it is difficult – simple in concept, but exceedingly difficult in acting out.
I think that is about as far as a short article can take it. I’ve attempted to outline the basic problem and point a finger in the right direction of help. The rest is a matter of personal subjectivity to the struggle. This struggle, when engaged sincerely, provides its own education along the way.
Thanks for reading!