Thinking About Being Lonely

Thomas Dumm, professor of politics at Amherst College, writes:

To be human is to risk being alone in a way that is unbidden and unwanted. And we may also note that while we are alive, we humans search for what we imagine our world to be. It is true that from the start of our lives and for our lives’ duration, we seek others to comfort us, harm us, ignore us, and move us onto our paths through and out of life. Loneliness is deeply entangled in all paths of life because it reveals in sharp profile some of the most important limits of who we are and how we are with each other. It may be said that loneliness is fundamental to the very constitution of our selves.

Amedeo Modigliani, "Head of a Young Girl" (1916)

There are moments when we find it astonishing, this life. We are astonished at least in part because we know of no other life and yet we retain a capacity to be amazed by the singularity of this one. It seems as though each of us is endowed with the ability to think of our life as being this life, and we are able to do so without any direct experience of other lives with which we may make a comparison. The endowment of this life is a core paradox of our existence that motivates great religious thoughts, generates extraordinary imaginative energies, and underwrites profound philosophical discourses. Yet for much of the living of it, we try to avoid thinking about this life. We move about the world obscurely ashamed of our presence, embarrassed by our unbidden participation in the search for meaning beyond the conventions handed down to us. We intuit that to face this life at the most basic level would be to experience a sort of sublime terror. Many of us would do almost anything, even deny our own life, to avoid that feeling. We cling to the familiar, even as a part of each of us remains acquainted with a strangeness inside ourselves. The world of our familiar takes on many modes that are deeply rooted in the rhythms of the everyday, and we say to ourselves that this is the world we live in. Yet this world remains largely unthought. It is as if we are condemned to see life retrospectively. In such moments, life itself seems like a broken clock that can be taken apart and truly known only when it no longer keeps time.

This is one way we come to know ourselves. But this way of knowing kills its object and violates what would seem to be our paramount responsibility of caring for ourselves. The care of the self is always related to how we know ourselves, how we explore and whether we decide to investigate the grounding of our life. And yet this care has another end in mind than knowing; it entails an acknowledgement of the very limits of what we may know while appreciating that there may still be an unknown that must remain unknown. How deeply we go in pursuit of this form of caring is not settled by rules, not by the commands of various orthodoxies. Moreover, we cannot absolve ourselves of this obscure responsibility of caring for ourselves by consigning this work to philosophers. As a matter of basic human right and responsibility, philosophizing is not an activity that is limited to those who are designated as philosophers. The thinking person, as Emerson suggests in his essay on the American scholar, is anyone who faintly remembers the wholeness of the world that we can only experience partially. While we can never overcome this partiality, we still seek ways to endure it and to find something certain or energizing about our selves from within its bounds. We try different therapies that would comfort us in the face of our shattered condition or that would help us to cope with or evade the harm we otherwise would suffer.

Loneliness is one of the ways we experience partiality. We can never experience the world as a whole because we are mortal. We are fated to seek assurances for our existence, even though such assurances can never overcome basic doubt. We negotiate a path through this life with others, both with those who are far outside of us and with those who have penetrated our interiors. We hear voices composed of the fragments of those others, we speak, we listen, we touch and are touched, and we always fail to achieve an understanding that would allow us to rest. Our unending desires remain unsatisfied. Yet our failures, as inevitable as they are, also shape whatever our successes may be. We move through life, and our lives are shaped by these movements.

When the reach of our selves to others becomes so fragmented and confused that we find ourselves arrested, or halted, or otherwise blocked from contact with them and from ourselves, we become lonely. We may thus think of loneliness as the experience of unhappy removal from a life lived in common with others.

Loneliness as a Way of Life (Harvard)


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