To be human is to be lonely. I am speaking of a loneliness which exists even when we are surrounded by others. It is rooted in the anxiety we feel in the face of our vulnerability. It is rooted in our secret shame – a sense of being bad, flawed, or worthless. It may follow from a being unseen or misunderstood. It may be there when we feel assaulted by the world. Ultimately then our loneliness, whatever its particulars, is rooted in our human condition. Some philosophers have romanticised this problem, painting life as unquestionably bleak and recommending a heroic posture in the face of despair. Alternatively hedonistic outlooks seek to sooth the pain with pleasure or comfort or the image of security. But these answers simply reflect and reinforce the problem. They themselves are bleak. There is another way which is good, which is meaningful, but which is also more demanding. I am reminded of Flaubert’s words: “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.”
It is tempting to rush for a solution to loneliness because we want to protect ourselves from its pain. This tendency is almost mechanical; we all have psychological defences by which we distract, dull, or blind ourselves in an attempt at self-protection. But the trouble with blinding or numbing defences is they make us blind or numb to other things also. For example, to the full reality of others. Then, in our understandable cowardice and desperation, we reduce others to tools which serve to distract us or make us feel good. When others fail to serve this function we may imagine that they have wronged us or let us down, and so we experience a doubling of loneliness. In rushing from loneliness as quickly and mindlessly as possible we have become even more isolated from others and from a good life.
The motivation for today’s reflection is the thought that loneliness, despite its pain, has valuable meanings that we can decipher. I called loneliness a gift because, by turning inwards with courage and patience, we can discover something more to life by means of it. If in that moment when we would usually become defensive, we choose instead to maintain a steady gaze, then we become more free. More free to see ourselves and others as they are. More free to find meaning. Meaning is not rigid. It is the consequence of discovery and creation; of effortful attention which discerns possibilities. In the case of loneliness we are talking about a problem of isolation from others, where to run from vulnerability is to withdraw even deeper into the self. Such behaviour reduces us to somebody who, in their pain, is different to others. Feelings like envy and bitterness ensue. But when we look into the heart of our loneliness we can come, alternatively, to see that it is a shared condition. It is the human condition. Now we experience our pain in a different way.
When we experience our pain as the pain of being human, we transform our vision of who we are and what matters. A sense of solidarity ensues, as I come to recognise my struggles as ultimately shared with all human beings. If I say yes to this insight, then I now struggle not only for myself, but also alongside, and on behalf of, all others. This is not some theoretical idea but rather something we feel in our bones when we consent to this path. We feel a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with our fellow vulnerable members of the human family. According to this vision, what is deepest and most inward in me is at the same time universal. It connects me with all others. Our painful loneliness becomes a paradoxical gift.
"Attention," writes Simone Weil, "is the rarest and purest form of generosity." I am suggesting that it is not only generosity for the other, but also that our giving is a gift that returns immediately to us. The distance between ourselves and others diminishes. Such love transcends our individuality and so lifts us above our painful isolation.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Nigel Van Wieck
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.