On Loneliness

4 December, 2009

A few weeks ago, while having a casual conversation about the nature of confused yet platonic relationships, a friend remarked “Everybody’s lonely.” He offered this without irony, without sadness, simply assuming that this is a fact, an integral part of the human condition, as natural and non-negotiable as needing oxygen to breathe, as certain as death and taxes. Our conversation twisted and turned from there, as conversations in bars tend to do, but later that night, at home alone in bed, those two words floated back into my head. “Everybody’s lonely.”

Of course, this is nothing new to me. I’ve held hands with loneliness long enough that, at times, I view the world in degrees of disconnect rather than love, connection, partnership or camaraderie. But something about how my friend had said it – was it his tone? his off-handedness? his confidence? – rang in my ears. Perhaps, too, that phrase resonated with me because this friend, in describing “everybody,” was really allowing me a small glimpse into his own emotional core… and it looked a lot like mine. I fell asleep thinking that try as we might, loneliness never truly leaves us.

A week or two later, I enjoyed the type of evening where being with someone made me feel safe – if only temporarily – from the long arms and tight grasp of the immeasurable beast called loneliness. I spent the next few days thinking that, even if we are destined to each be lonely, the relatively small moments of connection really do make the rest of the ride more palatable. Feeling confident about my prospects for a more tenable future, then, loneliness seemed like a harmless yet permanent mark that maybe we’re all just born to wear, but not endure.

Sandwiched in between then and now, I saw the new film “A Single Man,” a visual delicacy directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, exercising his right to the American dream. I won’t weigh this blog down with a review, but the movie can essentially be broken down as follows:
Act I: We all die alone.
Act II: We may not necessarily go through life alone, but we still all die alone.
Act III: We all die alo – wait – wait, do we? Maybe not! Maybe there’s hope after a – oh, no, no, we do still all die alone.

My initial reaction, as I’d seen the movie through confident and relatively sanguine eyes, was “Well, no need to be so depressing!” I would’ve gladly endured an ounce of Hollywood’s conventional optimism to not have the ending of the film so absolute, so final in its commentary on the solitude of death.

As hours passed and I digested the film and what it had to say, my friend’s small comment floated back into my conscious mind, and the past few weeks came full circle and secured by something that felt like a rock solid truth: Everybody’s lonely.

My friends in confused yet platonic relationships are lonely. Hell, all of my friends are lonely. My coworkers and customers are lonely. Bar-stool philosophers are lonely. Tom Ford is lonely. I’m lonely, too.

Sometimes, we cling to this – there is an odd safety in holding on to loneliness – it crushes you slowly, which is often preferable to the acute pinch of heartache. Most of the time, we search for a distraction, or we try to cope together – something akin to huddling together to stave off the cold, rather than giving up and lying prostrate, waiting to be consumed by that thing we’re all afraid of.

I don’t write strictly of the Single Condition. There are hundreds of social and emotional units by which to measure loneliness and/or its more positive sibling, satisfaction. And while I don’t believe we can ever fulfill all of those measures, I also don’t believe that loneliness is something we’re all destined to suffer with. Like aging, indeed, like death and taxes, it’s true that loneliness will eternally ride with us through life. But I see a virtue in that, a kind of reassurance that no matter what we are or who we’re with, we’ll always be searching for something more, not to replace what we’ve got, but to add to and enhance it.

Many years ago, I discovered the difference between being lonely and being alone. To me, it’s similar to the relationship between being alive and living. Being lonely, being alive – these are the permanent conditions. Being alone, like living, is not guaranteed, but exists in moments that come and go, come and go. Just as we are not always really living, we are not always alone.

I’m still learning to understand how everyone deals with their own loneliness. What do my sisters’ boyfriends offer them that my sisters have chosen them as their partners? Why does an old flame seemingly derive so much pleasure from being alone? What safety does a friend find in setting impossible criteria for her potential mate? Does having more options, more lovers, more stories result in being less lonely? What type of relationship do I need to find in order to keep my own loneliness-demons at bay?

So is the best we can hope for to trudge towards that lonely death hand-in-hand, to share the awkward journey? Maybe. But if we endeavor to fill our lives with happy things – people we like, fulfilling hobbies, pursuit of a satisfying career, faith in something – anything, good books, real cinema, every now and then an indulgent movie, polka-dot dresses and matching shoes, music in its myriad shapes and sounds, someone who makes us feel wanted, someone who makes us feel loved, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, George Clooney – we may come to understand that to tame the loneliness monster is not to fight it, but to live with it.

PS: Another cute new movie recently out, “Up In The Air,” has Mr. Clooney reminding us, again, that everyone dies alone – except, he offers cheekily – for “the people in the cult, with the sneakers and the Kool-Aid. They didn’t die alone.” Food for thought. Thanks, George.