Theories of Loneliness

I wrote a paper on this topic awhile back. A professor of mine suggested it, and I thought it was a great idea; somehow it appeals to me, and I thought it might be interesting to update some of the material here, and add to it, because it’s quite a varied topic. Recently, I read a piece about a woman who was shy, and how she conquered her shyness to the extent of being able to participate in the world effectively. She commented, at the end, that she would always crave long periods of solitude, even if she was able to cope with being “out there”….. This made me think of the Jungian discussions on introversion versus extroversion. Dr. Jung, may peace be upon him, was an introvert who “looked like” an extrovert. I think I’m of that type, also, and people like us are evidently in good company with various humanitarians and teachers, such as Ghandiji, may peace be upon him, too. Some people are really, really introverts, and that must be very difficult, unless one finds a niche in life where one can be oneself and at peace. Anyway, I’ll go through the various categories of loneliness as an existential/spiritual/social/etc. condition, at least the ones that seemed meaningful to me. That long-ago paper this comes from also started with the “Oatmeal” poem, which you can find if you scroll down. It’s a wonderful description of the sacred nature of what might be called “commonplace” loneliness, in this case the loneliness of a man whose deeply loved wife, to whom he was married for many years, has died. Here are my remarks on this “average” loneliness, with material from my “abnormal” psychology textbook (I hate terms like that!

To deeply understand loneliness is to acknowledge its usefulness, whether that usefulness is in the diagnostic signs it presents in the “ill,” or in the diffuse, primordial reality of it as a “normal” existential condition. Between these extremes are loneliness as it manifests itself in the emotionally disordered, the addict, the mystic, the artist and the “average” everyday person. To attempt to categorize any of these as normal or abnormal is at best subjective, and at worst, reductive.

“Normal” loneliness is caused by the unavoidable situations of life, as described by Coleman, Butcher and Carson:

As the individual grows older, he or she is faced with the inevitable loss of loved ones, friends, and contemporaries. The death of a mate with whom one may have shared many years of close companionship often poses a particularly difficult adjustment problem. This is especially true for women, who in the United States outlive their spouses by an average of at least seven years.

Other factors, too, may contribute to social isolation. Children grow up, marry, and move away; impairment of vision, of hearing and various chronic ailments may make social interaction difficult; an attitude of self-pity or an inward centering of interest may alienate family and friends alike. In many instances, the older person also becomes increasingly rigid and intolerant and is unable to make effective use of the opportunities for meaningful social interaction that still remain.

Of course, retirement, lowered income, impaired health, and loneliness are not just matters of inability to maintain a particular lifestyle or to interact with loved ones. In a larger view, they involve the inability to contribute productively and to feel oneself a vital and needed part of the human enterprise. In essence, they progressively destroy the older person’s links with the world and feelings of living a meaningful existence. (1984, pp. 513-154).

Loneliness is implicated in a variety of stressors and physical illnesses:
…In a study of 50 patients, aged 40 to 60, admitted consecutively to a hospital following their first heart attack–as contrasted with 50 healthy controls–Thiel, Parker, and Bruce (1973) found significant differences between the two groups with respect to the incidence of divorce, loneliness, . . . (p. 287). … Lynch (1977) in a book entitled, The Broken Heart, argues convincingly that the relatively high incidence of heart disease in industrialized communities stems in part from the absence of positive human relationships. He notes that heart disease and other illnesses are more prevalent among individuals lacking human companionship and for whom loneliness is common (in Coleman, Butcher & Carson, 1984, p. 290). . . . …high-risk groups include depressed persons, the elderly (white), alcoholics, the separated or divorced, individuals living alone, migrants, people from socially disorganized areas, members of some Native American tribes, and certain professionals, such as physicians, dentists, lawyers and psychologists… (p. 328)

All of the above are persons separated from certain individual or collective relationships for one reason or another. However, while the above descriptions are no doubt true, what they also have in common is that loneliness arises out of an increased uniqueness, whether by virtue of uncontrollable events such as age, illness or profession, or out of the person’s own individuation process. The individual, for whatever reason, becomes less and less a part of the mainstream “they,” and loneliness is a condition of that.

I studied Heidegger in some depth in my Master’s program, and I have always loved his explication of the term “they.” Have you ever noticed the extent to which “they”–or at least one’s projected concept of the “they”–control a large percentage of our perceptions and actions? This reminds me of some of the thoughts I have shared here on the “stories” we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives. Why are we so willing to adopt and adapt the “stories” of the “they?”

Heidegger was equally helpful to me in my exploration of loneliness and “the abandonment of being,” another of his terms.

In Being and Time, Heidegger points out that the ‘I’ of Dasein, the human way of being, exists by virtue of its ‘being-with’ others (Heidegger, 1962, p. 154). Thus human beings are inextricably entwined with others, and are never alone. Yet equally primordial to the condition of ‘being-with’ others is Dasein’s ‘being-toward-death,’ and in this fundamental mode of concern with the inevitable end of being, Dasein is alone, and lonely (Heidegger, 1962). Further, the existential condition of loneliness is what causes Dasein either to remain lost in its ‘fallen,’ or inauthentic state, or which motivates it to strive for transcendence, which to Heidegger means something very much like individuation (Heidegger, 1962). The very condition of concern with the certainty of death leads to a preoccupation with the ‘I’ and alienation from the ‘we’:

Heidegger can be tough going, even if extremely helpful, in some of his terminology, which includes terms like “fallen,” which has a sort of biblical flavor (well, he was a clergyman, after all), and “transcendence,” which a lot of us aging-hippie-baby-boomers-Eastern-religion-devotees tend to give a certain interpretation to, although his is quite different. Suffice it to say that once one becomes transcendent, one is no longer dependent on the “they” for direction!

…anticipation reveals to Dasein its lostness in the they-self, and brings it face to face with the possibility of being itself, primarily unsupported by concernful solicitude, but of being itself, rather, in an impassioned freedom towards death– a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the “they”, and which is factical, certain of itself, and anxious (Heidegger, 1962, p. 311).

If you are reading this and asking yourself “what the hell does this mean?,” worry not. Heidegger is extremely difficult to understand, and I convey all this here in mortal fear of the real Heideggerians I have studied with, who didn’t have much use for my failure to be suitably impressed, or with my explanations. I was mostly, they said, “too Jungian,” which is just fine with me, even if Dr. Jung, peace be upon him, had no desire for there to be “Jungians.” Anyway, in order to “get” Heidegger, I found it necessary to forget everything I knew before then, and become a temporary disciple to numerous postmodern European philosophers. I flatter myself that good old Dr. Heidegger and I probably would have gotten on rather well, as I have in my possession at least one book on Heidegger and Eastern philosophy. Anyway, back to the topic at hand:

Thus the person, through its intrinsic anxiety, experiences the loneliness of realizing itself as a unique individual in the knowledge that death is inevitable and that one dies completely alone.
A different, but no less painful loneliness results from the nihilism of the post-modern era, which becomes a catalyst for the “abandonment of being” (Heidegger, in Levin, p. 483) in that the person becomes increasingly unable to see meaning in an authentic engagement with being. Levin notes the resultant disengagement with development of an authentic Self, which becomes reduced to an

…ego as a center of activity in a strictly objective field; interpretation of the ego as male will and a male will to power; extreme subjectivizing of the individual ego, taking place through the ego’s transcendental and practical aggrandizement; atomization and isolation of the individual; and finally, total exclusion of references to the deeper, more spiritual being of the Self from within the discursive field (Levin, 1987, p. 483).

We’re moving, here, into the more psychodynamic theories (read: Freud and his ilk), but not entirely.

What this points to is an increasing involvement in the unthinking life of Heidegger’s “they” and the increasing isolation of the authentic Self. At its extremes, the abandonment of authentic engagement with being leads to what is called psychopathology.

I hope this makes sense: basically, the point, here, is that we are conditioned to take our cues and eventually our complete identities from the “they,” and from then on we carry out a process wherein we are able to live out our lives on that level, or whether our innate craving for “an authentic engagement with being” leads us either to enlightenment or, sometimes, to what is popularly termed psychosis. If we use words like “psychosis”–and I’d really rather not–we can consider whether it is not true that psychosis and enlightement (or transcendance) are a sort of continuum, although sometimes a rather circular one, because what is called psychosis can often be a genuine engagement with the innate authentic being that wants to emerge.

And that’s enough for now. I want to say more about the loneliness of the “unique” (one web-site calls them (us?) the “mentally interesting,” aka known as the mentally “ill” (another term I’d rather now use). I’m exhausted. I’d better print my endnotes here, but I’ll wait until I get all this stuff laid out.