Loneliness: terrible, but creative
“The loneliness was terrible,” Alex said. “I am rather shy and introverted.” He spoke quietly.
“I spend the entire week going to classes, studying, chatting with classmates, then on weekends I am alone and lonely…and the loneliness is terrible.”
Alex is just one of the 25 per cent of all Canadians who suffer from chronic loneliness, and for them “the loneliness is terrible.”
We are just learning that loneliness, that most intimate and least congenial of companions, haunts our development, keeping a growth chart on its own.
And young adults such as Alex get lonely for strikingly different reasons at different stages in their lives.
There are different types of loneliness as well: transient loneliness (short lived); situational
loneliness – that resulting from a death in the family; and chronic loneliness – occurring for a two year period or more.
A recent study of university students suggests that what typically makes first-year students lonely is not homesickness, but rather a lack of friends.
And those first few months at university can be among the most dislocating and most dangerous period for depressed and lonely students who risk turning suicidal.
Some experts feel that there may be “attachment latency” in late adolescence. At the age of 17 or 18, young people feel ambivalent about relinquishing parental attachment and seem not to want to get too committed to new intimate relationships.
It is a self-protective strategy knowing these relationships are not going to last.
Female students, when compared to male students, fare significantly better. While showing lower immune function they do not suffer to the extent that men do.
Incidentally, women are readier to admit they are lonely, an admission men often avoid, because it can be seen as weakness.
There is some evidence for the “lonely personality”: individuals who go through prolonged stretches of loneliness.
Researchers have placed such individuals in social settings. While they behave as others do, analysis indicates they asked fewer questions of others and demonstrated less interest in general.
Subjects spoke much more about themselves and they were more critical of others in the social setting.
Generally speaking, loneliness comes in two types: the loneliness of emotional isolation, which means the lack of an intimate emotional attachment, most often a partner; and the loneliness of social isolation, which often means a lack of friends, a community or social network.
Phillip Slater (The Pursuit of Loneliness) believes that loneliness is a problem caused mostly by our obsession with individualism.
He argues that we all have a deep and abiding desire for community, engagement and dependence. We want to trust and co-operate with others.
These basic needs for community and engagement are thwarted in North American society because of the commonly shared belief that we all should pursue our own destinies with relative indifference regarding others and the roles they might play in our lives. The result is that loneliness affects 25 per cent of our population.
Slater writes: “Individualism is rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of human interdependence.
One of the major goals of technology is to free us from the necessity of relating to, submitting to, depending on or controlling other people.
Unfortunately, the more we succeed in doing so, the more we have felt disconnected, bored and lonely.”
Admittedly, separateness is an essential condition of our existence, so the important question is how can we deal effectively with such aloneness?
Clark Moustakas (Loneliness and Love) distinguishes between loneliness anxiety and true loneliness by emphasizing the creative potential in being alone.
Loneliness is the pain of being alone, while solitude is the majesty of being alone.
Loneliness anxiety is a system of defense mechanisms distracting people from dealing with crucial life questions, and motivates them to seek activity with others often leaving them with an empty feeling.
True loneliness stems from the reality of being (ontology) and facing life’s ultimate experiences – birth, death, change, tragedy – alone. True loneliness can be a creative force.
So when Alex returns, and I am sure he will, and he says once again: “The loneliness is terrible”, maybe it will be helpful to speak to Alex about the creative, growth-promoting potential of solitude.
I certainly hope such a discussion will help.