I had as lief have been myself alone

Just because something is missing, does that mean it should be there -or would be there under normal circumstances? Suppose someone does not realize it’s missing and has no thoughts about it. Under those circumstances, is it really missing -or does that description apply only when it’s noticed? Is the evidence of absence the same as the absence of evidence?

I have to say, this all reminds me of the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s teapot analogy that attempts to suggest that the burden of proof lies upon the person who is making unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. ‘He wrote that if he were to assert, without offering proof, that a teapot, too small to be seen by telescopes, orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, he could not expect anyone to believe him solely because his assertion could not be proven wrong.’(Wikipedia)

Loneliness is something like that: a social expectation that in the absence of people, one should feel lonely. Value judgements are seldom provable, and yet it sits there like a normally hidden blemish under a shirt, just waiting for a morning mirror.

Perhaps it is important here to distinguish between solitude and loneliness, and an essay by the writer and historian Fay Bound Alberti in the online publication Aeon helped to delineate the boundaries: https://aeon.co/ideas/one-is-the-loneliest-number-the-history-of-a-western-problem

‘The term ‘loneliness’ first crops up in English around 1800. Before then, the closest word was ‘oneliness’, simply the state of being alone. As with solitude – from the Latin ‘solus’ which meant ‘alone’ – ‘oneliness’ was not coloured by any suggestion of emotional lack. Solitude or oneliness was not unhealthy or undesirable, but rather a necessary space for reflection… Skip forward a century or two, however, and the use of ‘loneliness’ [is] burdened with associations of emptiness and the absence of social connection.’

‘The contemporary notion of loneliness stems from cultural and economic transformations that have taken place in the modern West. Industrialisation, the growth of the consumer economy, the declining influence of religion and the popularity of evolutionary biology all served to emphasise that the individual was what mattered – not traditional, paternalistic visions of a society in which everyone had a place.’ But there has also arisen a social stigma associated with being lonely. ‘While loneliness can create empathy, lonely people have also been subjects of contempt; those with strong social networks often avoid the lonely. It is almost as though loneliness were contagious.’

And indeed, it has long been recognized that belonging to a community seems to be associated with mental as well as physical health. So ‘loneliness can exist only in a world where the individual is conceived as separate from, rather than part of, the social fabric.’ Only in a society, perhaps, where individual efforts are recognized as contributions, not anomalies. A bit of a mixed bag, isn’t it: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I like to think that I am selectively ‘onely’ -that there is a choice. But as I get older, and wear my years less confidently than my clothes, I find that the options are sometimes rescinded. People -strangers, often women- smile at me when I am sitting alone. And while I have always enjoyed a smile, lately I have come to see it as a harbinger of something else. Something more than just holding a door open for an older man: I hesitate to call it pity, so perhaps I’ll suggest that it is transference -in an almost-psychoanalytic sense. I don’t really think I look that fatherly, but perhaps sitting alone at a table in a restaurant, I evoke not entirely buried feelings of guilt for the infrequent visits to parents. Or is it a premonitory dread of my own anticipated fate?

I was coming back from a visit to some friends a while back, and decided to stop in a little town for some coffee and a snack. I suppose the place was too small for a Tim Horton’s or even a MacDonald’s outlet, so I opted for a generic version on the only main street. It wasn’t at all busy, and there seemed to be a wealth of tables available, so I chose one in the window overlooking the mildly busy street.

For some reason, a woman walking past on the sidewalk outside suddenly caught my eye and smiled at me. Short grey hair, with a dark red ankle-length coat, she seemed not unlike any of the others who had strolled past unaware of me on the other side of the glass, so I promptly forgot about her until I saw her standing beside my table with a coffee in her hand.

“You must be a stranger in town,” she said, not unkindly.

I smiled as an answer, hoping she was just on her way to another table.

She shook her head slowly, as if trying to decide what to do. “You look so much like my father,” she added. “I thought maybe he had decided to come out for a coffee again…”

“Come out?” I said, wondering if that was a good thing or not.

Her smile broadened. “I had to put Dad in a care home last year because he kept wandering off.” She performed a quiet sigh and sat down in the other seat at my table. “He still walks out occasionally. The staff say he gets lonely and decides to go looking for me.”

I nodded sympathetically. “There must be lots of other people there, though. Don’t they help with the loneliness?” I suddenly realized that sounded terribly naïve.

But she nodded politely. “With Alzheimer’s you can be lonely in a crowd, they tell me.” She stared at me for a moment and then had a sip of her coffee. “Apparently it can be more than just frightening for them,“ she added, glancing at me again. “It makes me wonder what it is about being alone that terrifies them -or the rest of us, for that matter.”

I shrugged. “Being alone isn’t always a bad thing,” I said, sitting back in my seat. “Sometimes it can be a choice.”

Her expression shifted just a little, and I could see she was examining my eyes. “Or sometimes what starts off as a choice turns into a sentence, don’t you think…?”

She smiled enigmatically, and after we engaged in a bit more small talk, she apologized for bothering me and then walked slowly over to another table filled with friends.

I don’t know whether she’d been proselytizing or just being kind, but I kind of envied her, you know…

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Society is no comfort to one not sociable

The curse of modern society may be our need to discover patterns. Our need to explain everything could be an honest atavism, but the reasons we find may be way off the mark. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, is a common fallback position that is often useful when the gun is not smoking -or when there’s no gun.

I suppose societies have always faced threats, though. And whether from without or within, they have always looked for remediable causes; the death of a society means the termination of shared customs at the very least, and shared loyalties just as probably -the sense of an us pitted against an implacable them who do not understand us.

Just as frightening, however, is an adversary who does not share our basic humanity. In an interesting article written by Nabeelah Jaffer, who is a former associate editor at Aeon, https://aeon.co/essays/loneliness-is-the-common-ground-of-terror-and-extremism  she discusses ‘the inner dialogue’ which the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes about in The Origins of Totalitarianism. ‘We speak in two voices.’ Jaffer says of Arendt’s ideas. ‘It is this internal dialogue that allows us to achieve independent and creative thought – to weigh strong competing imperatives against each other.  You engage in it every time you grapple with a moral dilemma. Every clash of interests, every instance of human difference evokes it. True thought, for Arendt, involved the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. True loneliness, therefore, was the opposite. It involved the abrupt halting of this internal dialogue: ‘the loss of one’s own self’ – or rather, the loss of trust in oneself as the partner of one’s thoughts. True loneliness means being cut off from a sense of human commonality and therefore conscience.’

‘Loneliness is the common ground of terror’, as Arendt says. ‘It was loneliness, Arendt argued, that helped Eichmann and countless others … to give themselves over to totalitarian ideologies and charismatic strongmen. These totalitarian ideologies are designed to appeal to those who struggle with the internal moral dialogue that Arendt valued as the highest form of thought … Totalitarian ideas offer a ‘total explanation’ – a single idea is sufficient to explain everything. Independent thought is rendered irrelevant.’ So is the inner dialogue.

This got me wondering about what I see when I wander the streets of my city, and what I read and hear as people attempt to explain seemingly senseless crimes -especially violent ones- and attribute motive, usually in retrospect, to so-called ‘loners’. Not to loneliness, you understand, but to loners, an ostensibly different, more malignant, and ‘I should have guessed’ variety of human who does things of which you and I could barely conceive. But, I don’t know that the average person understands the difference between ‘loneliness’ and ‘loner’ -or even thinks it might be important.

As sometimes happens, I emptied the change in my pocket into a hat lying on the sidewalk in front of a young man. He was sitting quietly, eyes closed, in torn jeans and a dirty grey sweatshirt on a busy corner with his dog. The roughly printed sign by the hat merely said ‘We Are Hungry! Will You Help?’

He must have sensed someone stopping in front of him because he opened his eyes and smiled as I put the change in his hat. I was about to walk away when it occurred to me to ask about the ‘We’ in the sign. I don’t know why it mattered, to tell the truth; I suppose I was just trying to be friendly.

“Where’s the ‘We’?” I asked, trying not to sound too nosey.

His smile grew as he pointed to the sleeping dog at his side. I think I blushed at the naïveté of my question, but he didn’t seem at all surprised. “When the sign just said ‘I’m Hungry’ most people only walked by and pretended they didn’t see either me or Jason. I was only another runaway kid trying to get money for drugs, or something…” He shrugged resignedly, as if this was just life on the streets. “But they had no idea what it’s like -and even worse, they didn’t care.”

He reached over and patted the dog -a black lab, I think- and received a couple of tail wags for his effort. “I thought maybe letting them know I had a dog to feed might help…”

He wasn’t a menacing-looking boy -his auburn hair looked clean and combed, and although his face was definitely in need of a little soap, his expression was friendly and, well, innocent.

“And did changing the sign help?”

He seemed to think about it for a while, then nodded, and his eyes sought mine for a moment. “Well, you stopped to talk to me…”

That caught me by surprise. “Doesn’t anybody usually talk to you?” I felt foolish saying it, but the words tumbled out before I had time to think about them.

The expression on his face answered for him: ‘Are you kidding?’ it said. But I could tell he felt he should explain it to me. “I’m a beggar on the street -an eyesore for most people- so I spend my days in silence, just trying not to look frustrated. Trying not to annoy…”

He studied my face for a minute, obviously wondering whether or not it was worthwhile discussing it any further. Whether I would listen. “But I have Jason,” -he patted the dog again- “And he has me, so neither of us is lonely.”

For a moment, I felt I had entered his world. “And what about at night? Do you stay with friends, or…”

He shook his head and chuckled. “It’s just Jason and me. I’ve really never needed much more.”

I could tell by his face that he felt I was discouraging others from contributing to his hat, so I smiled and wished him good luck. But as I turned to walk away he looked up at me again, his eyes fluttered around me like little sparrows looking for a branch, and wondering if they should perch. “Loners are humans, too,” he said, and his face lit up with the joy of an inner dialogue he simply could not disguise. “Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, mister,” he added, just before he closed his eyes again to wait in daylong silence. But I was left with the impression that our words, as much as my money, were important in his world. And I couldn’t help wondering what those who never stopped to talk would think of him.

For that matter, I wonder what Arendt would have thought.

The Loneliness of Social Media

There comes a time when solitude is not enough. When weekends are deserts that must be crossed to get to people on the other side. Where there are eyes that welcome, ears that hear, voices that desire a response. When your own voice is not rusty with disuse and your mind not imprisoned inside a page you’ve just read twice.

That, almost word for word, is what a patient told me recently after a routine gynaecologic examination at my office. She’d had no need to visit me other than getting a pap smear that wasn’t due for another year. She’d asked her family doctor for a referral but I’m not sure what she told him –there was no letter. I suspect she simply took up too much time. Was too vague to slot into one diagnostic category or another.

Doctors are busy; we deal in diagnoses, descriptions we can place in algorithms that lead to conclusions and thence to prescriptions… We are computers, but not as fast. And without recognizeable data to input, goal-oriented analyses, interpretation and even investigations are difficult to devise. Especially in the fifteen or so minutes usually alloted for their resolution.

I don’t mean to disparage my colleagues with this quick dissection –I, too, am prey to its siren song. But sometimes, the scramble for parsable phrases, or attributable words, leads nowhere but to confusion. Sometimes the only thing necessary is listening. Patience. Time.

Strange isn’t it? The answers usually surface, bubble to the top, when you least expect them. When you haven’t even asked. When you yourself are often at risk of capsizing in the turbulent sea of emotive misdirection. No, not misdirection exactly –the patient truly wants help- but more like multidirection. Stochastic: random observations from the maelstrom in which they are living.

And the diagnosis for my patient? Well, I am certainly no psychiatrist and pretend no background in psychology, but from what I could gather, she wasn’t clinically depressed (a selective differentiation I’ve never really understood)–or any more so than anyone else in her situation at any rate. If I were listening as her friend and not her doctor, I would be fairly convinced I knew what the problem was: loneliness. I certainly wouldn’t honor it with a DSM-5 categorization –even if I knew how to use the manual. Some things are just obvious. Or become obvious if you simply listen. Hear.

Her problem troubled me and I suppose one of the reasons was that although she had tried the usual methods of meeting people at work and at clubs, she had been singularly unsuccessful. A friend had suggested an online dating site and that’s where her real problems had begun. It was not that there hadn’t been an over-abundance of interesting profiles –apparently a buzz-word in that community for acceptable suitors- but that the ones she had agreed to meet were lies. Is that the right word? People who had misrepresented themselves in the categories that had most interested her. She had become disillusioned with the whole process. Exasperated. And other websites seemed no better.

While I’m sure that some dating sites are better than others –more reliable, more responsible and trustworthy- she seemed to think they all attracted the same clientel –or at least the same type of person. She had even done a reverse look-up of some of the pictures submitted (I have no idea how you do this) and discovered the same pictures on different sites –some with different names.

I had no solution for her, obviously, but it got me thinking about the issue of loneliness. It has always been with us, of course, but the prevalence in this age of ubiquitous, omnipresent social media surprised me. I had assumed –naively- that our almost universal and continuous interconnectedness would have banished loneliness to a locked, unroutered closet somewhere off the grid. But I was wrong.

If anything, social media as a solution to loneliness is an illusion, a bedtime story meant to lull us into complacency. There is an existential reality it simply does not confront: although it allows –indeed fosters- communication, it does so once-removed. You need eyes to communicate. Faces with expressions to analyse and judge. You need to be able to touch and maybe to hug in order to communicate meaningfully. That is really what socialization implies.

You can say or declare anything online, but there is still a gap. It’s the very same space where loneliness lives. And where people –real people- don’t. I wish my patient well, and all the others who come to me with masks. It is my job to look behind them, coax them off. But even after all these years, I still may not recognize what they hope I’ll see; sometimes I can only look for clues, or wait with patience painted on my face, and trust they’ll understand. We can communicate in the old way…

I can’t help but remember what Iago said in Shakespeare’s Othello: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?” Isn’t loneliness a wound?