The Alone or Lonely Hermit
For modern (possibly all) Hermits, the life of the Hermit may lead to loneliness, or even be a response to loneliness. Living alone and with “aloneness” is an integral part of the eremitical life. When is the solitude and “aloneness” of the Hermit creative and enlivening? When might it be pathological loneliness?
This afternoon I listened to an interesting Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) program on loneliness: it can be heard or downloaded at: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/late-night-lonely/5788976
The speakers were Professor John Cacioppo, world expert on loneliness, who says that there are drugs for loneliness but they come with a downside; social commentator Stephanie Dowrick who says that our quest for autonomy can lead to loneliness; and author Emily White has never found a solution that works.
Emily White “Lonely: A Memoir” [Harper, 2010]
“Many people, over the course of the past several years, have asked me why I would want to write a book about chronic loneliness. The subject, they hint, is embarrassing; it’s best kept unmentioned. And loneliness, they say, isn’t “real” – at least not in the way that depression or bipolar disorder are real. Every word I’ve written has been penned against a chorus of “Don’t” and “Why bother?”
“It’s too trivial,” I’ve been told, “too shameful,” “too irrelevant.” And it was, after all, just me. Even if my own loneliness was somehow significant, even if it did change my life, derail my health, cloud my intelligence and turn me into someone I didn’t used to be – all of that was just my problem.
One of the things I made sure to do when writing this book was talk to other lonely people. Before every conversation, I thought about my own experiences, and drew up questions meant to probe how closely their battle with loneliness mirrored my own. I used to be a lawyer, and what I was looking for was evidence. I wanted to prove that what I went through as a lonely person was neither immaterial nor unique. I phoned loneliness researchers in places ranging from Arizona to Scotland; I talked to lonely people across the continent. I asked about symptoms, manifestation, mortality, disease, responses, rates. I plowed through hundreds of articles, followed up footnotes, searched the Internet, and paid for out-of-print books that were shipped to me long-distance.
Throughout this entire process, I’ve been fuelled by the conviction that I had to give voice to an experience that mattered, one that affected people far and wide. What I wanted throughout my years of loneliness was recognition. I needed others to see and understand my state as a real problem. I needed others to ask me about it, help me through it, and view it as something valid and potentially life-altering. I also needed to hear other people talking about it. Right now, loneliness is something few people are willing to admit to. There’s no need for this silence, no need for the shame and self-blame it creates. There’s nothing wrong with loneliness, and we need to start acknowledging this through a wider and more open discussion of the state.
The fact that I’m the author of this book is little more than coincidence. The story set out in the pages that follow is my own, but I think any lonely person could have written a similar account. The state, I’ve discovered, is something of a universal, afflicting people from a variety of age groups and backgrounds, and affecting men and women in equal measure. The only thing that perhaps sets me apart from other lonely people is that the worst years of my loneliness coincided with years in which I was repeatedly instructed – as a lawyer – to examine everything. No question was to leave my desk until it had been answered; no argument was to be put forward until every angle had been explored. And so it became natural for me – once my rage had subsided after painting class, and I was back out on the streets of Toronto, walking and walking in the darkening evening – to start asking questions, and begin wondering whether my state had substance, whether it was in fact as significant as it felt.
Given the choice, it’s not a journey I would have gone on. I would have preferred to have lived a life of connection, one in which loneliness did not assault me on a daily and yearly basis. But we don’t get to chose the main facts of our lives. Loneliness was something I was born into, something that claimed me as its own. The only thing I could do in response was to try to follow and understand it, to chart it as fully and cleanly as I could. If it was clutching me, the least I could do was twist in its grip and really look at it. If I couldn’t ward it away, I could at least see it as clearly as it saw me.”
See also: http://www.lonelythebook.com/loneliness-blog/
Emily White “Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude” [Harper Perennial, 2011]
“In a boldly honest and elegantly written memoir—the first on this topic—Emily White reveals the painful and sometimes debilitating experience of living with chronic loneliness. In the vein of popular favorites such as “Girl, Interrupted” and “Manic”, “Lonely” approaches loneliness in the way that Andrew Soloman’s “The Noonday Demon” approached depression, and lifts the veil on a mostly ignored population who often suffer their disorder in silence.”
John Cacioppo “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection” [W. W. Norton & Company, 2009]
“University of Chicago social neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo unveils his pioneering research on the startling effects of loneliness: a sense of isolation or social rejection disrupts not only our thinking abilities and will power but also our immune systems, and can be as damaging as obesity or smoking. A blend of biological and social science, this book demonstrates that, as individuals and as a society, we have everything to gain, and everything to lose, in how well or how poorly we manage our need for social bonds.”