I find that I’m only lonely when I’m around other people, never when I’m by myself. Does that sound a little… I dunno… Emo? Like I’m some sad little high school boy hiding from the world in my room? Honest, Mom, the eyeliner was just for a part in a show…
But seriously, I’m usually perfectly happy with the world and my place in it when I’m by myself. I can work, read, listen to music, write… sometimes all at the same time… and feel productive and content. When I’m around other people, however, I tend to notice the flaws in my relations with them. I used to place all the blame for those flaws on myself. I wasn’t sensitive enough, I wasn’t tough enough, I wasn’t smart, or good-looking, or witty enough. Lately I realize that the blame isn’t mine, at least not all of it. A lot of why I feel disconnected when I’m around others, why I can’t connect with them and feel content in their presence, is that they are not sensitive, tough, smart, good-looking, or witty enough. Well, maybe not good-looking. I don’t care about good-looking. And toughness doesn’t impress me unless it’s real, which it rarely is.
So I’ve come to the conclusion that being lonely and being alone are not the same thing. In my case, they may just be polar opposites. Loneliness is traditionally accepted to mean longing for the company of others, noticing their absence, feeling abandoned. At least that’s always been my take on it. But I’ve come to define loneliness, for me, as longing for others to listen to me, to understand me, to engage me in meaningful conversation, to tell me an interesting story. If that’s not happening, then what’s the point of being around people? And I find, a lot of the time, that’s not happening when I’m around people.
Oh, I have friends. I’m not pretending I don’t. They’re all good people, and many of them do have interesting stories to tell, and do listen to me. Is it a little unfaithful to them to suggest that I feel lonely, when I have such nice, interesting people in my life?
Most of my social interactions tend to be very task-focused. If I’m with other people and I’m busy, I’m generally good. If there’s not a project to work on, well, not so much. I not only suck at small talk, I find it painful. You want to talk about what? What does that contribute to humankind’s epistemological progress? Maybe I’m just a snob, but, if I’m going to put down the book(s) I’m reading, or put aside my writing and talk to you, well, I need us to talk about something.
As I’m putting these misanthropic thoughts into words, I wonder, has anyone else written on this? I flip over to Google and… wow. Yeah. This observation about loneliness that it took me 48 years to formulate ain’t exactly news.
Time had an article in October, 2011: “How Not to Feel Lonely in a Crowd.” Most of its material is drawn from a University of Chicago study led by Christopher Masi. “People who are lonely tend to be cynical, self-conscious and untrusting,” says Masi. “They have an abnormal perception of themselves and what people think about them.”
I’ve often been called cynical. I prefer to think that I just understand that everyone has an axe to grind, a selfish motive, and you can get along with them better if you can figure out what it is.
Masi goes on to say, “Lonely individuals not only communicate negativity to others but also elicit it from others and through others. This perpetuates a cycle of negative interactions and affect in the lonely individual and also transmits negativity to others to affect their interactions as well.”
Ouch. Well, it would, wouldn’t it? Do I radiate negativity? I’m sure I do, sometimes. As a teen, my art teacher called me “The Voice of Doom.” (A little embarrassing, to be singled out as particularly morose in the company of artists.) I maintain that it takes a lot of positive energy to keep moving forward in the face of the odds I’m sometimes encountered with. Maybe I’m selfishly consuming all my positive energy by being task-oriented.
Masi and his colleagues recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT… be careful Googling that…) for those who are suffering from their loneliness. (I wouldn’t say I’m suffering. I’m more just very curious about it.) They recommend against simply trying to cure loneliness by reaching out to others, because you may be reaching out for a cure when you don’t understand the disease.
Wikipedia notes “Conversely, one can be alone and not feel lonely; even though there is no one around that person is not lonely because there is no desire for social interaction.” Of course, the issue I’m discussing here is not strictly a desire for no social interaction, it’s a desire for social interaction other than what I’m experiencing.
The Web of Loneliness (wow, now that does sound Emo!) observes, “Many people report feelings of being lonely in a crowd, that even though they are surrounded by people, they still feel lonely. On the other hand, there are those who have written about the virtue of being alone. Hermits, monks and other religious persons treasure their time alone for contemplation and communication with the Higher Powers.”
Hermits, monks and other religious persons? Am I one of those? Am I an introvert? Do introverts put in as much time as I do trying to get noticed?
Maybe I just have a different style of social interaction. Does reading (or writing) a book, article or story count as social interaction? Does Facebook? (Not that I consider Facebook part of my social interaction strategy. Frankly, it depresses me, because people let a little too much of their inner idiot child show on Facebook. But I guess some people consider it social interaction.)
Does interacting with fictional characters, your own or someone else’s, count as social interaction of a sort? I guess it’s more seeing yourself mirrored in portrayals of others. It’s more introspection of meditation. But I think it’s important. Maybe you should socialize with yourself.
You’ll note there aren’t a lot of answers in this entry. Just questions, mostly. Perhaps just part of my own process of self-analysis and trying to figure out how my brain ticks. Don’t worry. This isn’t a cry for help, and I’m not standing at the edge of any precipice… or looking into an abyss. Just feeling pensive.
If you are feeling lonely, in a crowd or when alone, I think perhaps there’s some value in what Masi’s study suggests–you need to identify what your needs are before you blindly throw yourself into social interaction. You just might make yourself lonelier.
What are my needs? Good question… Soooo many questions.