Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

On Loneliness

Originally posted on May 28, 2011

At first, I think of being lonely in terms of the popular songs, focused on yearning for a true love, romance. But then I realize this is just the most appealing format, the type where we’re more likely to feel sympathy for the yearning person. However, there are other, far more pervasive types of loneliness.

People need people. Social isolation is far more common than we think. I’m not talking about solitary confinement, which, by the way, is a subtle form of torture. I’m referring to the isolated modes of work and home-making that are almost norms in our culture—a social phase that I suspect will be viewed by future generations as rather inhuman!

Even for those who feel beloved by their spouses, many live away from sufficient doses of connection with others. They work in isolating situations, at home or at the office. Their spouse works away from them. This kind of loneliness isn’t a yearning for romantic love, but rather it’s a need for day-to-day sharing of life.

Consider that humans are “herd” animals, innately social; and that the ideal of the hyper-independent “loner” has distorted our culture rather foolishly. The problem with the hero-cowboy who rides into town to finally engage in a successful shoot-out with the villain—a not uncommon theme in the movie Westerns of the 1920s through the 1950s, and television shows of the ‘50s through the 1960s—was that it idealizes what is actually a rather pathological “loner” life style. Most of that cowboy’s life is lonely, and yet his “toughness” seems noble. It’s also a warrior ethos, the virtue of not “needing” people. It’s a phony masculinity, in contrast to the image of dependent femininity. (And it’s the unconscious seeking of a balance of strength and vulnerability that lead women to fall for loner psychopaths.)

What if we more vigorously recognized that people need others to share in the chatter, to be around. Even those who “have” a good marriage, one with good sex and sincere romance, still can be subject to loneliness when their beloved is at work or caught up in other roles. The culture suggests that the good love should last long enough internally so that it “tides them over” during times of separation. This is probably true, but to what degree?  What if a significant portion of the population is forced to tolerate degrees of loneliness that may go beyond the optimal.

And even if most of those who tolerate the subtle discomforts, even pain, of feelings of emotional isolation, some don’t tolerate it at a deeper level, unconsciously generating somatic symptoms, subtle forms of neurasthenia, depression, and so forth. For others, loneliness fuels escapism into alcoholism and other distracting and compulsive conditions. Evaluating the stressors of those who come for help, one finds that many of these people are attempting to bravely or not-so-bravely soldier on in the face of painful levels of loneliness.

Of course there are other strains, too. Add loneliness and the boredom of house-cleaning and the care of young children and you get the suffering of the millions of housewives who in the 1950s and 1960s used meprobamate (Miltown, Equanil), making it one of the most successful mass-marketed drugs in history up to that time. Then that population turned to Librium and Valium for the next decade. Then the Feminists began to be heard: Could it be that the context of the nuclear family is psychologically unhealthy? Could it be that suffering in such contexts wasn’t a weakness so much as an un-voice-able oppression?

Another type of loneliness also tends to be repressed—it’s not so poignant as unrequited romantic love, but again far more pervasive and problematic in the long run: It is the experience of not feeling recognized, known, even noticed. Of course one knows one is seen (i.e., visually perceived)—after all, people avoid bumping each other when walking on the street. But that is only being known as a physical lump. How do you get to feel that someone knows that you are interesting, enjoyable, or perhaps not happy with the way things are being conducted?

As a young child, you aren’t expected to manage this situation: It’s the job of the parent, teacher, caretaker. They should be accurately empathic, but often they don’t even get close. Sometimes they don’t have the skills, sometimes they don’t take the time, often it’s both. The whole species hasn’t made much gain on helping grown-ups be conscious of this skill.

In reality, it often occurs that children have few people around who take the time and/or have the skills to be effectively empathic or reflective. This requires some affluence or a recognition that validating children’s experience is itself a valid activity. In the economic conditions of all who couldn’t afford a talented nanny, a Mary Poppins—i.e., most families—it had to be enough just to feed, clothe and entertain the kids. To validate their experience? Who ever heard of such a thing?! “Oh, look at the sun you drew!” “Yes, that is a cow! What is she doing? Yes, feeding her calf!” “My, how straight you’re standing, soooo big!” “You look sad, what’s happening?”

Ideally, the child experiences someone reflecting its experiences—also called “mirroring.” This validates the experience and allows it to be more deeply assimilated—as if the child could then say, “Yes, that did happen, it was not a dream.” And “Yes, I made it happen,” or “I saw it.”

If this doesn’t happen, kids can get pretty confused and develop various neuroses. More often, it’s in-between: There is a relative lack of empathic attunement, and kids are resilient enough to cope with this—but the price is a compromise: Expecting not to be seen and/or expecting to be shamed for standing out in any way, some people cope by withdrawing. They sink into the background and don’t disclose their thoughts or feelings. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because in another situation they may be around people who would be glad to attend, empathize, respond, reinforce, and thus reduce loneliness. If people won’t put it out there, risk, it’s often difficult or impossible to generate a bridge that will relieve feelings of isolation.

(I’m reminded of the late 1960s Simon & Garfunkle song, “I Am a Rock, I Am an Island” that glorifies hyper-independence and toughness, but also plays off the John Donne poem that begins, “No man is an island…”  This song is a good piece of poetry that could be a source of discussion of this theme in high school classes.)

Ideally, we would put the burden of responsibility first on parents and caretakers. But beyond mid-childhood, children do have some increasing responsibility and can make it harder (or nearly impossible) for caring others to reach out effectively. Perhaps if we taught them about loneliness, acknowledged this as a basic need, to feel known, to feel heard and seen, and that it’s okay. This knowledge would be paired with some suggestions as to how to open up, reach out, dare to express. It would also be important in such a classroom to be ready to acknowledge and foster cross-connections.

In summary, this mini-essay is aimed at opening more conversations about loneliness, especially the more repressed and subtle types.

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