Lonely or Alone

The rate of loneliness in the U.S. has doubled since 1980.
University of Chicago study

The familial celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas are upon us.

Cape Cod restaurants will record their busiest day of the year with visitors seeking to spend Thanksgiving in a place reminiscent of Pilgrims. In Vieques, Christmas week will see guest houses full up, premium high-season rates, and rental vehicles in short supply. At the same time, people forced into strained, pseudo celebration with extended family will find the coming weeks stressful if not downright excruciating.

It’s at this time of year that we are reminded of those among us who don’t enjoy trusted relationships in which affection can be given and returned.

These are not only alone. These are the lonely.

“Automat” by Edward Hopper, 1927“Automat” by Edward Hopper, 1927

Edward Hopper, whose Cape Cod summer house is within sight of my home in Truro, was preoccupied with depicting loneliness. Almost every critic sees in his mature paintings solitude, alienation, loneliness and psychological tension.

As early as 1923, Hopper titled an etching The Lonely House. The composition includes two children, so the title suggests a larger kind of isolation – one that’s embedded in our society.

Then there’s Hopper’s Macomb's Dam Bridge in 1935. It depicts New York, a city of millions, with no people in it.

“It's probably a reflection of my own loneliness,” he commented. “It could be the whole human condition."

Not only did he show in his paintings melancholy solitary figures, but he also drew trains and highways -- metaphors for escape.

“To me the most important thing is the sense of going on. You know how beautiful things are when you're traveling,” Hopper said.

So what is "loneliness"? Is a person who is alone also a person who is lonely?

Experts tell us that being alone is healthy when it is a choice. When it is the result of occurrences beyond our control -- bullying, empty-nesting, bereavement, unrequited love, loss of friends or loved ones -- being alone can become being lonely.

Existentialist philosopher Michele Carter has this take:

“Loneliness is not the experience of what one lacks, but rather the experience of what one is. In a culture deeply entrenched in the rhetoric of autonomy and rights, it is ironic how much of our freedom we expend on power -- on conquering death, disease, and decay, all the while concealing from each other our carefully buried loneliness, which, if shared, would deepen our understanding of each other."

Novelist Thomas Wolfe connects the intense loneliness of his own life to a universal aspect of humanity:

“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

The University of Chicago study:

“Lonely individuals are more likely to construe their world as threatening, hold more negative expectations, and interpret and respond to ambiguous social behavior in a more negative, off-putting fashion, thereby confirming their construal of the world as threatening and beyond their control. These cognitions, in turn, activate neurobiological mechanisms that, with time, take a toll on health.”

And of “being alone”? Is it necessarily lonely?

Not for Sister Wendy Beckett, the Catholic nun we know from her PBS series on classic paintings. Even within her cloistered convent, she chooses to live, pray and write in solitude – as a hermit who occupies a trailer that sits apart from the nuns’ main building -- having no social intercourse with her sisters. 

“Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”

That’s Paul Tilllich, the theologian and philosopher whose writings inspired Martin Luther King. Tillich adds:

“The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself in spite of being unacceptable.”

Now there’s something to think about during this holiday season.

In my next blog, “Brain Massage”


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  • published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 10:06:43 -0400