I had as lief have been myself alone

Being alone is not easy for many of us -perhaps because it allows an inner dialogue to emerge that is ordinarily submerged in the noise of the crowd. And yet it is in solitude that a still small voice emerges: the one that allows us to assess our actions, and to argue with ourselves.

This, of course, was a central theme of the Jewish-German thinker Hannah Arendt who fled Nazi Germany to America. I suppose she came to public attention largely because in 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who helped to orchestrate the Holocaust.

I happened upon an essay on solitude by Jennifer Stitt, then studying at University of Wisconsin-Madison who was obviously impressed by Arendt’s work: https://aeon.co/ideas/before-you-can-be-with-others-first-learn-to-be-alone

Arendt believed that ‘solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think… Arendt was surprised by Eichmann’s lack of imagination, his consummate conventionality. She argued that while Eichmann’s actions were evil, Eichmann himself – the person – ‘was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions.’ She attributed his immorality – his capacity, even his eagerness, to commit crimes – to his ‘thoughtlessness’. It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder… A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’ The banality of evil.

I also discussed this in an essay I wrote last year in relation to extremism and loneliness: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2019/03/27/society-is-no-comfort-to-one-not-sociable/

But here I’m not so concerned with the aberrant aspects of enforced solitude -during a quarantine, say- because being lonely and being alone are separate creatures. Most of us are never really alone -that’s when we meet our inner selves. It’s when there is no one else inside, that we feel lonely. ‘Eichmann had shunned Socratic self-reflection. He had failed to return home to himself, to a state of solitude. He had discarded the vita contemplativa, and thus he had failed to embark upon the essential question-and-answering process that would have allowed him to examine the meaning of things, to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, good and evil.’ This suggested to Arendt ‘that society could function freely and democratically only if it were made up of individuals engaged in the thinking activity – an activity that required solitude. Arendt believed that ‘living together with others begins with living together with oneself’… Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it.’

‘Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.’

Millenia ago, when I was a child in Winnipeg, I remember having to stay away from school and in our house for a week or two because, in those pre-vaccine days, I had the measles. I would stare through the bedroom window at my friends playing in the field outside in the snow and tell my mother how bored I was. After reading every book I could find, and tiring of the adult radio programs she was fond of listening to while she cooked, I would wander into the kitchen and complain that there was nothing to do. She would listen patiently for a while, and then shoo me out of the room.

I still remember the day at breakfast that I announced that I had decided I was going to go out and play with my friends. It was Saturday and everybody was throwing snowballs at each other -I could even see them through the frosty kitchen window. I tried to look determined and crossed my arms over my chest like I’d seen my father do when he was intent on something.

“It’s only been 5 days, G,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re still contagious.”

I shrugged at the argument. “They’ve all had measles, mother… And besides, I’ll be so wrapped up none of my measles could get at them.”

She smiled at me -it was one of those fake smiles she usually put on when she was trying to hide her frustration. “How do you know they’ve all had it, G?” Her face softened when she could see I no longer had my arms crossed over my chest. “What do you think would happen then?”

I thought about it for a moment. The teacher had warned us that measles could be dangerous to some children. She’d never actually told us what that meant, but at recess Jamie told me that his uncle had got a bad case when he was young and something had happened to his head –‘gitis’, or something. He was never the same after it, apparently, but he didn’t explain.

“What could happen, G…?” I was taking too long to answer her question, I suppose.

I remember shrugging and looking first at the window, and then at the floor. “Gitis,” I mumbled guiltily, not confident I had pronounced it correctly. Anyway, I should have thought of that, and prepared a suitable rebuttal.

It had an unexpected result at any rate: she bent down and hugged me. “That’s right, sweetie,” she said after kissing the top of my head. “I knew you understood why I need to keep you home. You just had to think about it, that’s all…”

I now realize that Arendt was on to something. There really is a voice somewhere inside if we stop to listen to it. Mine sounds suspiciously like my mother’s, though…

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…

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?