Alone

Loneliness is a desperate thing and a thing desperately hard to capture in words. But when the wish for connection becomes reality, the heart trembles …

We are isolated for several reasons. What happens in our head is unique. Intimate communication is a struggle. We are surprised at the blunt instruments words become. The indefinable essence is too often lost, subject to the way we sound, our facial expression; and the auditor’s capacity to listen. Without his ability to identify some likeness between his experience and our own, the effort is futile.

Nor do we even fathom ourselves fully. Messaging cannot deliver a meaning unknown to the sender. The most insightful among us still are trapped looking at themselves from the inside, unable to escape a claustrophobic perspective – unable to discern the unconscious. Meanwhile, the vantage point from outside is second-hand news, told to us, but not known by us.

Self-knowledge is imperfect, not comprehensive. Humans accept obvious motivations and easy explanations to explain themselves to themselves. Who even considers the many causes of a simple task like deciding to grocery shop today? Hunger, scheduling, a sale on peaches, your child’s request for a particular food, a friend’s comment about a good meal, a cooking show you watched, or all of these? We admit, at least, that love is inexplicable, our heart a mystery.

Hope of connection lives, nonetheless. The desire for understanding overpowers the complications. And sometimes hope is fulfilled.

Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist, understood this. Two characters in his masterpiece The Idiot – a towering achievement in reckoning with the complexities of personality – express their separation from the mainstream of society.

Dostoevsky presents an embittered young man, Ippolit, within weeks of death; who himself believes he will never be understood, yet strains to be heard, recognized, and accepted:

In any serious human thought born in someone’s head, there always remains something which it is quite impossible to convey to other people, though you may fill whole volumes with writing and spend thirty-five years trying to explain your thought; there always remains something that absolutely refuses to leave your skull and will stay with you forever; you will die with it, not having conveyed to anyone what is perhaps most important in your idea.

The novelist’s title character is a casual friend of Ippolit, a saintly and open man named Prince Myshkin. Ippolit and Myshkin, despite their differences, both want connection.

The following narrated passage recalls a time when the young Prince was in treatment in Switzerland. Expressing himself was then a particular challenge. He led a life alone, separate, cut-off:

Once he went into the mountains on a clear, sunny day, and wandered about for a long time with a tormenting thought that refused to take shape. Before him was the shining sky, below him the lake, around him the horizon, bright and infinite, as if it went on forever. For a long time he looked and suffered. He remembered now (years later) how he had stretched out his arms to that bright, infinite blue and wept. What had tormented him was that he was a total stranger to it all. What was this banquet, what was this everlasting feast, to which he had long been drawn, always, ever since childhood, and which he could never join. Every morning the same bright sun rises; every morning there is a rainbow over the waterfall; every evening the highest snowcapped mountain, there, far away, at the edge of the sky, burns with a crimson flame; every ‘little fly that buzzes near him in a hot ray of sunlight participates in this whole chorus; knows its place, loves it, and is happy’: every little blade of grass grows and is happy! And everything has its path, and everything knows its path, goes with a song and comes back with a song; only he knows nothing, understands nothing, neither people nor sounds, a stranger to everything and a castaway.

Notice the character’s reference to a fly. He is quoting his young friend Ippolit, the man near death, the one struggling to be understood. And in this moment, the Prince recognizes his own sentiment. Dostoevsky continues:

Oh, of course he could not speak then with these words and give voice to his question; he suffered blankly and mutely, but now it seemed to him that he had said it all then, all those same words, and that Ippolit had taken the words about the ‘little fly’ from him, from his own words and tears of that time. He was sure of it, and for some reason his heart throbbed at this thought …

At such moments in the mountains – in the empty spaces of life – we wait for the voice of another to utter our thoughts, intuit our mind, touch us by understanding our sentiments. It is as close as one can come to escaping the solitude of the human species, finding a soul who matches us at least a bit, at least for a time …

Those most desolate among us, those most cut-off, quietly despair of finding such a witness: one who not only sees, but understands. The inhabitants of hope’s waiting room are on every street, in every therapist’s office. If they persist – as they often do – the moment of hope’s fulfillment is transcendent.

As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

The first image is William Blake’s Ancient of Days. Next comes Jean-Jacques Henner’s Solitude. These are both sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, a photo of Cadillac Mountain in Arcadia National Park.

32 thoughts on “Alone

  1. “Loneliness is a desperate thing and a thing desperately hard to capture in words.” How very true! To me, the closest description of the feeling is this excerpt from Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters

    “Now listen, life is lovely, but I Can’t Live It. I can’t even explain. I know how silly it sounds . . . but if you knew how it Felt. To be alive, yes, alive, but not be able to live it….. I am like a stone that lives . . . locked outside of all that’s real. . . . I wish, or think I wish, that I were dying of something for then I could be brave, but to be not dying, and yet . . . and yet to [be] behind a wall, watching everyone fit in where I can’t, to talk behind a gray foggy wall, to live but to not reach or to reach wrong . . . to do it all wrong . . . . . . I want to belong. I’m like a jew who ends up in the wrong country. I’m not a part. I’m not a member. I’m frozen.”

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  2. Great article! Feel trapped too. Not understood. But knowing that one cannot ever be understood fully! It’s impossible….and then the deep despair that goes with it. The wish to leave this world is peaking soon. Oh, what bliss! I’m done. ‘What happens in our head is unique.’ True….

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    • If one cannot be “fully” understood, which the Prince would reject, the next question is, how much is enough? My answer is that “enough understanding” is achievable, if not as often as we might want, and with all those with from whom we might want it. Thanks, Suzuki, and don’t despair.

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  3. I wish I knew more poetry, more of the written word, and their depictions of loneliness. I remember in my 40 years of life – mostly filled with traumatic events – how loneliness seemed to change with age. During childhood, my reactions to loneliness were mixed and dissociated. During adolescence, my reactions to loneliness were withdrawal, low self-esteem, sadness, desperation, hidden anger, neediness to non-family members, attempts for approval from authority figures, depression about the future, anxiety about how people saw me. During young adulthood, my reactions to loneliness were back to dissociative and mixed, becoming a workaholic, becoming a dreamer, becoming tough (though I secretly was shy and scared most of the time), becoming “someone special,” making a life for myself, and proving to the world that I deserve to be here. Somewhere after young adulthood, after a lot of the childhood trauma was triggered by myriad young adulthood victimizations, depression, anger, hopelessness, disability, and anhedonia set in. Loneliness became my identity, my purpose, my safety net. Loneliness was better than being hurt physically, relationally, and emotionally. Being alone felt safe, being with people felt more lonely than being alone. The need to prove to myself and the world – my purpose then – was gone. I wanted to find a new purpose, but I wanted to rest. Disability became my reason to be safe and alone, that being desperate for companionship in my 20s wasn’t worth the beatings and abuse from the one man I poured my heart out to, and from the men thereafter who were not emotionally intimate enough. I craved the kind of spiritual and soul-felt connection, as I’m a romantic, but I feared choosing a violent partner again. I grew up with a violent father, and the second man in my life whom I fell in love with was violent. Although other men I’ve dated in the past were not violent, I’ve been attacked by men (not in a relationship) who were violent. I knew that repeat victimization was more scary than falling in love itself, and I could no longer trust anyone – not even myself, my choices, my heart. Loneliness hurts, but I feared that making connections with the wrong people would hurt me more. Rape, military sexual trauma, childhood sexual abuse, being misdiagnosed, dumbing myself down in grade school to stay with friends in the same group instead of excelling into the person I should have been, lost dreams, lost childhood, lost life, lost purpose, and lost dreams – victimhood and loneliness appeared to be my only purpose for years. I feared pain, judgment (or misjudgment), penetration, blacking out, dissociating, forgetting, remembering, but never loneliness. Loneliness and isolation – they became my safety nets. Sure, I’d give more details about my personal life to certain people. Sure, I’d try to connect on a deep and intimate conversation with certain people as well, listening and giving, reciprocating kind words. But the fear of being physically subdued revisits me every single time. It’s easier to stay at a safe distance while appearing to be engaged than it is to actually be engaged and have hope for something that could turn violent. Loneliness and PTSD seem to go hand in hand. In my 40s, the pickings are slim, and I find myself not feeling as lonely anymore – simply because I feel that I’ve arrived at a bunch of people who, in this stage of life, feel the same way. I’m not lonely, but I’m alone, and I’m content, not sad, not angry, but rather repurposed. After spending five years in college and finally graduating, I’ve learned to spend so much time appreciating who I was and making myself proud. I had no therapist during this time. But then, after graduating, it was as if the loneliness revisited me. The thoughts of “is it too late to find a career because ageism is a reality?” The workaholism hope to fill the void of not having a companion so therefore have a good job and live a great life as a single person – this new hope was being shattered by reality yet again, and I’d be left with nothing but the scary thoughts of never getting into grad school, never being hired, finding out that all the progress you’ve made to try to get off of disability has meant nothing because of the increasing systemic biases that just only seem to get worse – especially with age – and the thoughts that you have spent half of your life – now at midlife – alone, with no one – and in a safety bubble that might cost me more than my future, but my entire health. All of these reactions to loneliness creep back, but they feel different with each stage of life. I try to embrace the feelings and connect when I can to certain people, but I’ve realized how much I’ve missed in therapy over the years. I never really processed the traumas that keep revising me. I learned how to cope, how to breathe, how to manage panic attacks, how to intellectualize situations to avoid processing true things – the true self- in treatment, but I’ve never trusted a therapist enough to deal with the source of my loneliness: my polyvictimization, my past traumas. I can’t blame loneliness solely on being a victim, and I cannot blame myself as the victim. But I can take responsibility for not addressing this fear, not daring to find the great relationships, friendships, and opportunities in life because of the slight possibility that they might turn abusive and life-threatening. Paranoid, I never admitted how I felt to many people, including professionals, for fear that even the therapists would find a way to take advantage of me. Testy, I’d say something but not mean it, and not mean to lie either. I value integrity, but I couldn’t be honest about this. Loneliness comes in many shapes and forms. The source, its etiology, has to mean something. The timing, the situation, has to mean something. But there’s so much to explore and learn from life while we’re all still alive, so many great things we could be happy about – which can overcome loneliness, in my eyes. My purpose is to enjoy some moment every day, even if I’m feeling lonely, processing trauma (finally), or having a generally rough day. There’s a bird that momentarily perches near your widow, for example, or a butterfly that seems to say hi. There’s the time that Pluto’s heart-shaped island made you smile, as if a sign, a personification of someone who said you matter. There’s the bus driver who smiles and wishes you a good morning, and a kind person to offer you a seat. There’s so many things in life to experience, and movies, books, shows, paintings, and music to embrace as “friends.” Like having imaginary friends, the elements in life help me overcome loneliness – even if they aren’t human, though (like my favorite television shows) can depict humans in them. Perhaps “Wilson” on the movie “Cast Away” would symbolize, in part, what I experience when feeling lonely – the hope in some object, some element on earth, that can depict human qualities, even if it is just in our imagination or delusional.

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    • I’ve turned 40 this year and even though I have a partner, kids, lots of friends, family, church community, I am lonely within. And after searching for 40 years I’ve realized it won’t happen anymore and it will only get worse. So I’ve figured: I’m dying. I don’t have much time left. And for the first time I’ve come to accept this and am looking forward to death.

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      • Many people pass through long and difficult times. The sun also rises. Don’t give up too soon.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you, Suzuki, for your reply and your brave testimony to how you feel. I recall watching Twilight’s second or third installment (I watch a lot of movies, especially fantasy ones, LOL), where the 17-year-old wanted to be a vampire so bad and was afraid of her “aging” at that time. She told her vampire love, Edward, that every day she is closer to death, as if to convince him to change her sooner. Anyone could watch that movie and think that she may be silly as a young person to say such things, but the reality is that we don’t know when we’ll die. Some people have lived to about 130, some to 80, some to 6 months of age. Age is just a number, but how we live it in the moment – with all our feelings, thoughts, and reactions to the world – is what matters. We don’t know when our time will be up, but we can live life knowing that the possibilities could be endless if we dared to face our fears and try. My best friend was murdered when she was 14 years old. I was 13 at the time and missing her so much. I was afraid then that I wouldn’t make it out alive, given the neighborhood we had lived in, etc. But somehow I made it to 43. My mother is 82, has more energy than I do sometimes, and has survived a triple heart bypass. She and my neighbor (in her 70s) speak about preparing for death, but they also speak about finding new purposes in life at their ages, about finding out what more things they could add to their “bucket lists” (like the movie), and about figuring out how many new friendships and connections they can reach. They hope to live long, but they also hope not to live long in pain. They’re both quite healthy (relatively speaking), and they are, in many ways, my role models. I hope both you and I make it to their ages, and then some! I’m hoping to live past 100, despite what statistics say. But more importantly, I hope we live – and by “live” I mean however you define it, so long as it is defined in such a way that you enjoy or embrace even the saddest moments, because there will be good times to make up for that, too. You’re still young. Hang in there.

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    • Thank you very much for writing this extraordinary history and commentary on your life. My hat is off to you for your courage and persistence, your frankness, and your continuing effort to win the day. Your words are not the words of someone who is yet finished with life and what may yet provide new avenues of fulfillment. You are something special – no cliche here.

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      • Aw, thank you Dr. Stein. You’re right. I’m not finished with life, though I’m sometimes afraid of it. I process my feelings, but I’ve learned from engaging with my 82-year-old mother recently that you’re never too old to find a new purpose, to have enough energy to enjoy the simple and great things in life, and to fulfill many things on your bucket list, or to add more to it. Sometimes it helps to hear it from someone else, and sometimes it helps to discover it for myself. I think both have happened in my life, and I’m deeply touched and grateful to those who remind me of the good stuff (about myself and about the world) as well as those who allow me to remind them as well about how good and special they are. Your blogs are amazing and heartfelt, creative and informative, Dr. Stein. I don’t remember how I came across it online, but I’m glad that I did. I have yet to read all of the past articles, including some of the sports ones you had mentioned, but it’s like a book of hope to me. Thank you for your specialness and contributions to the world. Thank you for your words and this blog. 🙂 – Gayle/Peace Penguin

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  4. I struggle very much with loneliness and it is a big part of my unhappiness , I think. When i can feel them, the connections with my therapist are wonderful but I then what scares me is the loneliness to follow after the end of therapy. It seems I must be without the best relationship I’ve had, for most of my life. And even there, I often can’t feel the connection – because the second hand perspective on me is not spoken and I have to intuit it, or extrapolate it, or trust in it, and that’s very hard…..

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    • This resonates with me so much! Therapy can be so cruel because it nearly feels like there could be or should be that connection or fulfilling of need….and reality is: it’s impossible! Is there hope then?

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    • I don’t underestimate the difficulty of which you speak. Life, however, is outside the consulting room, for as much or little as it is. One of these days I’ll write about the conflict between self-awareness and self-expression, which really must happen outside. It may be that for some people, too much self-reflection may be as bad as too little. I’m now speaking generally, not specifically of you. You have clearly gained much by the therapeutic process in which you are involved.

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  5. What kind of diagnosis or observation is to be made for the type of person who daydreams excessively to the point where such a person practically lives in a daydream world, especially if such a person has no close friends to speak of?
    Is it particularly noteworthy if such a person has reached a certain age and dosen’t have a spouse or family of one’s own?

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  6. At the extreme, one can dissociate and escape the present reality. Some take more than their share of a beating in life and retreat. They often have an associated anxiety disorder. Men are especially vulnerable as they age, especially if they are alone. The suicide rate for men jumps in old age. I hope this is responsive to your question, Joseph.

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  7. Beautifully stated, Gerry. I believe strongly in the connection of the written word.

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  8. Dr. Gerald Stein – Oh thank you so much for your wise posts! The one on “telling your children too much” just struck a chord – but then all of your posts do. I am hoping to find a book by you on Amazon – my next stop. I wonder if you realize how important your articles frequently are to your needy audience?

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    • Thanks, Diana. No books. I’d have to be more ambitious and have a stronger belief in the lasting value of such things for those of us not named Shakespeare. But your appreciation has value to me. Take care.

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  9. Dr. Stein, thanks for sharing your contemplation on man’s experience of loneliness. I’ve come to believe that a culture that promotes and awards individualism also serves to alienate us from each other. Moreover, some among us have such an over-inflated sense of their self-importance within our society that they brutalize those beneath them with their words and disdain. We see such behavior playing out daily in our current political arena. Fear of being brutalized, demonized, or rejected hampers our chances of connecting with others.

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    • What you write is true, Rosaliene. The history of communities, in what little I know about them, suggests there has always been some measure of control, though not at today’s price. Unlike today, there was a spot for virtually everyone, but one had to conform to the customs, religion, etc. Violation of the rules, as we read in books like “The Scarlet Letter,” lead to oppressive shame. We now live in a rather shameless world, at least in the West, and much more anomie.

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  10. I am a friendly, engaging, introvert, who talks to strangers but then will retreat to my bubble. Loneliness can strike me when I see others surrounded by friends, but I prefer the company of my spouse, who is also an introvert. I have other introverted family members, and I wonder at times if introversion is genetic or created? I would certainly have all the reasons to be created, but I recognize myself in extended family members. For me, loneliness generates fear of being alone someday if I lose my spouse, but I am sure this is a fear many must have. I feel understood by my spouse and therapist and I am fortunate.

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  11. There is thought to be a large inherited component to introversion/extroversion. Introversion, however, is different from shyness. Introversion is best understood in terms of its impact on energy: being in groups depletes energy for introverts. Extroverts, by contrast, are fueled by groups. Shy people are distinguished by social discomfort. You can more easily get over being shy than being introverted. Thanks for your comment, Nancy.

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    • Thank you, Dr, Stein! I find too much activity involving too many people exhausting, and I will need a couple of days to recover. I am not shy and like to engage with people one-on-one, but place me in a gathering, and I become quiet and observe everything. Thank you for your excellent article.

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  12. “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
    ~Maya Angelou

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    • A lovely quotation. Thank you, Evelyn. The quote reminds me of the implicit contradiction between beautiful writing and the harsh reality it can depict. In “Schindler’s List,” one scene that included a gorgeous vista struck me in just this way: it was too beautiful for the human misery to which it served as a backdrop. And yet, just such surroundings can be the scene of murder. Nature is indifferent, though one can only wonder whether the horizon provided some small solace for a few caught in that unimaginable circumstance. Angelou suggests music, the other arts, and nature might offer that.

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  13. Such a beautiful, heartfelt series of responses to a lovely, thoughtful article by Dr. Stein
    Thank you all.

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