Loneliness: “I Am Because We Are”
Have you ever felt utterly alone? If not, you are indeed a fortunate soul, because feeling lonely has become common in these times of ambient threats, like a pandemic and quarantines, ominous signs of global warming and other stressors.
I’ve always been impressed by the sheer number of popular songs about this sad human emotion. I remember feeling lonely when I was a lad about ten years old, quite ill and in bed with pneumonia, no one home and feeling sorry for myself. I heard a record called “Tubby the Tuba,” in which he (Tubby) sang, “Alone am I, Me and I Together…If I went away from Me, How Unhappy I would be, Me and I, Oh My, Sigh…”, and I was moved to tears.
I was also moved in my teens by The Inkspots’ “Me and My Shadow, All Alone and Feeling Blue…No One Else to Tell My Troubles To…”
Other songs on this theme were Three Dog Night’s “One is the Loneliest Number,” Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, Erik Carmen’s “All By Myself” and Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely.”
Countless similar songs appear in the Blues, Pop, Country, operatic and other genres, and some have doubtlessly touched you. They all express quintessential human loneliness, and its gnawing feelings and thoughts of sadness, isolation, anguish and despair.
I learned more about this poignant feeling from our daughter whom my wife and I had adopted from an orphanage in China. On the first night of her life she had been found wrapped in a blanket on the front stoop of a small post office, utterly alone there, not another soul around.
This dramatic newborn experience was obviously deeply moving to us, as it was at a deep preverbal unconscious level so meaningful to our daughter. (Her momentous beginnings turned out to be a seminal lifelong blessing: Our Chinese/American/Jewish/Episcopalian daughter is now thriving as a college senior.)
When she was around four years of age, she told us that she felt alone, and added, “What I really feel is ‘only,’” a word she felt better described her feeling sad and forlorn.
She was expressing the sense of being abandoned and feeling utterly alone, her penetrating insight into what her “only-ness” was all about. We were moved by her insights, and deeply touched by her pain.
Feeling lonely is a common human experience, which is somewhat jarring given that we are a social species. We thrive on relationships with others but we are not identical in our social needs and comfort: Some people are naturally gregarious while others are shy or socially reticent.
There are those who appreciate or prefer the relative quiet of privacy, and still others who tend towards reclusiveness. The fact is we all need some periods of solitude and silence enabling us to think, imagine, read, listen, work, daydream or sleep.
But there are inevitable situations and moments when we all desire, enjoy or even crave the company of others. Family and close friends enhance the feelings of comfort and meaning in our lives, giving us a sense of social identity and communality, which sociologists refer to as “social cohesion.”
We are most fortunate when we have the privilege of choice, when we can have access to meaningful others if we wish, or we can choose to keep to ourselves.
Studies have shown that we tend to feel healthier in mind, body and spirit when we have caring others in our lives. Conversely, extended loneliness can cause anxiety and depression, as well as contribute to cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and other serious physical illnesses.
In studies of people of all ages trying to assess the “worthwhileness” of their lives, we found that their sense of “Belonging” is a key cornerstone in that evaluation. It is a core part of “The Four B’s” (the others are Being, Believing and Benevolence) which we utilize when we look in the metaphoric mirror of life and consider whether we are intrinsically worthy beings.
A sense of Belonging implies that we experience and share togetherness, mutual closeness and acceptance, trust and caring.
Whether we call the absence of social supports “loneliness” or “only-ness,” this experience has significantly increased since the onset of the pandemic. Numerous people throughout the world have experienced feelings of isolation and even desolation during the pandemic, and ironically, mandates for safe “social distancing,” masks and quarantining have metaphorically and literally impeded human closeness and intimacy.
Another social force contributing to increased loneliness has been the onslaught of social media. Especially when we need each other for sharing and company, for caring and communication, social media sites have in some ways increased our loneliness and driven us apart.
It is ironic that incredibly popular social media sites like Tik Tok, FaceBook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter – all initiated ostensibly (and commercially!) to bring us together with a semblance of human contact – often achieve just the opposite: These sites can be antithetical to genuine communality, camaraderie and meaningful “I-Thou” communication.
The very real uncertainties wrought by the pandemic and global warming (not to mention political and economic pressures) have raised the baseline level of human worrying and feeling on edge. People throughout the world who are isolated and lonely often feel concomitant alienation and demoralization. These can all manifest themselves as clinical anxiety and depression, or physical illness, or they can also translate into frustration, anger and hatreds.
We humans need each other, and we are indeed ourselves the “antidote” to our loneliness. We need to reach out to each other, visit one another, commune and experience feelings with each other. We should cherish “Gemutlichkeit” (Ger.) or social togetherness in life, in work and play.
We thrive when we share our joys and pleasures in each other’s company, when we share our worries and woes, and when we lean on each other for support.
I conclude with“Ubuntu,” a wise Zulu word expressing the concept “I AM because WE ARE!”