“All of humanity’s problems,” the philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensees, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
“What should young people do with their lives today?” Kurt Vonnegut wondered at a commencement speech some 300 years later. “Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
Who is right here? Pascal? Vonnegut? Both of them? First of all, everybody would likely agree that the feeling of loneliness isn’t a good one. That it hurts. In certain cases, that it even kills. Now, some people claim that, in the Western world, we are currently undergoing a loneliness epidemic. They argue that an overly individualistic modern world has led to the breakdown of important social and community bonds and that this is hurting us.
We evolved to live in families and bands and tribes, but since the Industrial Revolution, things have changed. First, the extended family broke down, and then, over the years, as work opportunities arose in urban areas around the world, we became even more separated from the people we love, the small bands and tribes and villages that raised us. In many Western countries, individual liberty has come at the expense of community.
Of course, I may not live and breathe in the same village and with the same people my whole life, but at least I can talk to them through all of this wonderful technology we have built, right? And that is partially true. But what is also true is that, if there is, in fact, a loneliness epidemic (which not everyone agrees there is), all of this technology has perhaps contributed even more to this general feeling hanging over us. Rather than feeling connected, many are instead perpetually distracted, finding new reasons and new ways to not face and address their deeper problems.
To really understand the issue, we have to make a distinction between two human needs: a need to belong, and a need for personal intimacy.
Vonnegut was right in that there is an increasing need in this technologically advanced world for real-world communities, many of which have broken down over the last few centuries. These are places where people would get together, connect, and perform shared rituals over long stretches of time. We have an innate need for the kind of belonging that communities foster. It’s a need for love and a need for support. No matter how strong we are, other people are necessary for us to regulate our emotional experience of reality.
This need to have people around in some form is a basic need, just like food and shelter. Children that don’t have this need met by their parents when growing up tend to struggle in all sorts of ways later on, and sometimes, if this need is particularly neglected, they might not even survive. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that love and connection, as found in proximity and through physical touch, keep us alive, keep us growing, and keep us in a state of optimal mental and physical health.
But this, however, has nothing to do with loneliness as Vonnegut suggested. Loneliness can exist just as well in a community as it can in a state of pure aloneness. In fact, there is an argument to be made that perhaps loneliness might even be more common when others are around than when one is alone. The reason being that loneliness is generally a manifestation of a lack of the second need mentioned: personal intimacy. And that need is sometimes at odds with our need to belong as a part of a group.
Digging deeper, the root cause of loneliness is typically one of two things: either we don’t know our true self, or we feel that others don’t know our true self. Both of these are born from that lack of personal intimacy. For one reason or another, people start playing roles in their life. They play the role of a businesswoman. They play the role of a husband. They play the role of an educator. They play the role of an activist. And so on.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with playing these roles. We all have different contexts in which we exist, and we need to wear many different hats to get through life. The problem, however, is that we often play these roles before we figure out who we, ourselves, are deep down. These roles are imposed onto us by culture and society before we have the chance to really deliberate over them and make conscious choices to play them ourselves, with our own sense of agency. And then, naturally, when we play these roles, we feel isolated from ourselves. And because we feel isolated from ourselves, no matter how many other people are around, or how much we feel we belong as members of our community, we feel isolated from others, too.
Ironically, the solution to loneliness isn’t to spend less time alone, but it’s to spend more time alone, as Pascal claimed. That’s when the deeper voice that is truly ours starts to speak — that’s when we begin to experience the kind of personal intimacy that makes us who we are. And once we experience that, and once we accept it, there is very little holding us back from sharing this with others who can then know this deeper self with us, too.
In this sense, loneliness isn’t a problem of individualism. In the deep past, when we did have close-knit communities but lacked individualism, we might have had a more obvious sense of belonging, but we probably also hid a lot of our deeper loneliness at the expense of this belonging, because we didn’t have a choice. If you were, say, gay and a member of a tribe that didn’t accept that, chances are that you’d lie both to yourself and to other people just so you could belong. And belong you would, but you would also be lonely because you wouldn’t be living true to what you are. This is an extreme example, but before individualism, there were likely many instances like this.
Of course, the fact that we are so much more fragmented today, and the fact that many people lack a basic feeling of love and connection that such communities provided are still a problem, no doubt, but that problem has solutions have nothing to do with loneliness.
In this sense, there is a real difference between being alone and being lonely. And there is no real paradox between being alone and the idea of belonging. Both are important needs, and in fact, in some ways, they even support each other. Being alone, cultivating that sense of personal intimacy, as Pascal hinted at, does indeed solve many of the problems we make up in our mind because of mismatched fears and desires. And then, when these problems are solved, we are in a place where much of the meaning in our lives can be generated from our interactions with other people in, say, a community where we belong, as Vonnegut suggested.
Psychologists sometimes make a distinction between codependence and interdependence. Codependence is when we use other people to cover up the gaps in our own emotional problems and insecurities. Rather than stitching ourselves up, we use them as a temporary band-aid, hoping that we have beaten that problem of, say, loneliness, simply by running away from it. Naturally, this only works for so long. Interdependence, however, is different. It’s when we use others not to solve our problems, but as a support system so that we can do the work to solve them ourselves. It’s both individualistic and other-oriented, whereas codependence uses other-orientedness to hide from the work it takes to become individualized.
At its core, what all of this comes down to is the relationship between self and other. And that relationship needs a power-dynamic that is balanced. If it’s too self-oriented, too individualized, it’s hard to feel like you belong. You begin to live in your own linguistic mental world, feeling like no one understands you. If it’s too other-oriented, of course, you lose that individualization, that feeling of being a separate person, with your own uniqueness, your own point of view, and your own gifts, interests, and preferences.
The real solution is to find a way to cultivate our ability to be alone, while supporting our yearning to be a part of a larger group, whether that be a family, a group of friends, or indeed, a community. And the real lesson is this: We have to beat loneliness by ourselves, but we only really find lasting fulfillment in our relationships with others.
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