To be human is, in certain respects, to be lonely. There is a loneliness which exists even when we are with those we love. It can be aroused by feelings such as vulnerability or shame. Of course most often it occurs when we find ourselves actually alone. It could be said that loneliness is a part of the human condition. This is a philosophical and therapeutic reflection on living well with loneliness.
Some people romanticise their loneliness--it's because they're special--while some others deal with it by distraction. We can do better. I am reminded of some words of Flaubert: “The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life.” The challenge is to live in a more meaningful way with our pains and difficulties.
Negative emotions can be isolating. We can feel different from others, and this just makes everything worse. But it is all a delusion. Rather than separating us from others, the pain of loneliness is an experience of the human condition. If you can see that, and not merely in an intellectual way, but rather if you can feel how it is a part of our humanity, how in being lonely you are experiencing our shared condition, then you may find a better relationship with it. And with the rest of us, for to experience our shared condition is to experience our commonality, our communion.
Like all people, I have known suffering, and at a few certain moments in my life it has been severe. Finding the right perspective with which to carry it has always been vital. One thing that has helped me greatly has been to recognise that I need not carry it as Matthew-Bishop-the-isolated-individual. We are all experiments in living out the human condition. And these experiments are not neutral: they are calls to live good, truthful, beautiful lives. And to do so even in the midst of evil, lies, and ugliness.
This means that we don’t have to suffer so stupidly. So pointlessly.
The fact that our suffering represents a dimension of our shared condition, means that you don’t have to look far to find wisdom and insight about yours. If you are willing, you can draw on the wisdom of others. And you can take solace from others and their love and courage in the face of something like loneliness. Both your contemporaries, and those who have come before you. This is why I often recommend books to counselling clients, and especially appreciate biographies. What you are going through when you suffer something like loneliness, is a part of the human story.
At a terrible moment in my life (which crashed in on me shortly after I took that photo above), at a time when some friends remarked that my situation was like a movie--this wasn’t meant to happen in real life--a woman whom I respect, and who is twenty years my senior, shared with me how she had suffered a similar experience at a similar age. She did not offer me cheap consolations, in fact it was horrible to hear her say that this would simply change me. (Today I am greatly for that change, if not the event--a “time of ashes” can be precisely what is needed for growth.) But it made a great difference to speak with an elder who had gone through this before. And to recognise that it was simply my turn to suffer, just as it would be my turn later for joy. In time it helped to recognise that what I was experiencing was a variation on an age-old theme, that many had gone through this.
The fact that when you suffer loneliness you are living out the human condition, means that not only are you connected to a bigger story, to our human experience, a fact which can be consoling and healing, but also that you can make use of your suffering. By enduring this loneliness perhaps you are being strengthened, in order to better serve others, at an occasion up ahead toward which you are unknowingly making. Later on in life, there may be others who will need the strength and wisdom that you are developing now. Loneliness often pushes us back into ourselves, forcing us to draw on our inner resources. If we do that willingly, with this kind of universal perspective, we can use this and other kinds of suffering as a forge. We can build better inner resources to make our own life better and to take better care of others. People who have done this well are different. Their faces are harder, but also more kind, and sometimes joyful in a deep way.
To be harder in this case means to be stronger, provided it is combined with that kindness. The kindness is vital. It is what turns suffering into growth rather than into degeneration. A common psychological defense against suffering is hatred, which is why suffering often leads to self-loathing or aggression (which includes bitterness). But growth happens through love, not hate, and if you want to cultivate your better self, to become genuinely stronger and wiser, then you need a lucid love for yourself. One that is demanding, certainly, for you are definitely no saint, but it must be hardness combined with love. And this is also an antidote to loneliness. Consider that in Christian theology Hell is not a place, it is a state: a state of hatred. I think that the concept of Hell represents a universal truth in mythological form: the deepest loneliness a person can experience happens when they hate. Perhaps the greatest challenge of loneliness is to find a way to really love yourself and also this life you have been born into, and this humanity we all share. To really become connected. And that, of course, is the opposite of loneliness.