Is loneliness, too, a manufactured disease?
Dear friend —
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment my loneliness left me. Maybe its departure was a gradual one, because I only noticed its absence many months after the fact. This was in April or May. I was walking down my tree-lined street in Burbank, greeting familiar masked faces as they passed (with gyms closed, my entire neighborhood turned to long evening walks) when I realized it: For as long as I could remember, I’d been lonely. Now, I no longer was.
What caused the change? I could point to a few things. One, some friendships had deepened and grown. Two, I’d gotten somewhat better accepting myself the way I was. Three, perhaps simply growing older made me crave more quiet and solitude.
Four, the quarantine shifted my thinking. With all of us forced apart, aloneness no longer came with any social sting. There was no reason to wonder if there was something wrong with you for being alone, or what you should do to change your state. You were exactly how and where you were supposed to be.
And once I accepted this was how my life was going to be for the foreseeable future, I came to revel in it.
What is it, exactly, that makes us feel lonely anyway? We know loneliness isn’t the same thing as physical aloneness. You can feel isolated in a crowd or connected to others while sitting in solitude. Yet aloneness is often conflated with loneliness — and pathologized. We’re told we’re in the midst of a loneliness epidemic that’s literally killing people, that loneliness is fueling mass shootings, political extremism, hikikomori tendencies. Voluntary isolation — outside a mandated quarantine — is considered unhealthy, even suspect, behavior. What are you doing all those hours alone — building a bomb or something?
A movie I really love — don’t @ me — is Vanilla Sky. It’s about a guy who (warning: spoilers ahead, and also this film stars Tom Cruise) is disfigured by a car accident and chooses to commit a sort of temporary suicide — getting cryogenically frozen while his mind continues to “live” through a lucid dream. Tom’s character, for the most part, can control the narrative of this dream, so in it, his face is surgically returned to its conventional handsomeness, and he lands the woman of his dreams (Penelope Cruz). Then we learn later that this dream romance has been subconsciously cobbled together by Tom’s mind from the iconography of his youth. As a kid, Tom saw a record cover depicting a happy couple; in his lucid dream, he recreates that vision to a tee.
This moment in Vanilla Sky struck me because it made me rethink what I think of as desire and selfhood. What if the aspects we believe to be the most intrinsic parts of ourselves — what feel like our deepest and truest desires, the ones we’re willing to die for — are actually external wants seeded in us at an early age by a capitalist society?
How many of us are futilely trying to recreate the iconography of our youth?
Our conceptions of love and loneliness, of wellness and pathology, are created by the images and language used around us. And we seem to be deep in the age of manufactured diseases. A boy who might have been considered a little bucktoothed back in the day might today be described as having dentofacial deformities that require orthognathic surgery. Normal human conditions, ranging from a sensitive stomach to feeling anxious in a crowd of strangers, are now treated as worrisome medical conditions.
Is loneliness, too, a manufactured disease?
I’m not arguing that we have absolutely no innate desire to connect. Certainly, the history of human life makes a pretty strong case that we’re social creatures with a strong need to form bonds with others. But I wonder how much that need has been twisted and intensified by our culture. Close friends are great, but should all women aspire to Sex and the City-level relationships — a squad of three besties that are always there for you and also for each other? (My own close friends tend to be in different spheres of my life; rarely do we all hang together) Why do so many of us feel we must aspire to super-long, monogamous relationships a la The Notebook — quashing all desire to have sex with another person or have our own place for the rest of our fucking lives? Do writers and artists really need 1000 True Fans to get to think of themselves as a “successful creator”?
Real life doesn’t play like movies and TV shows. I’m happy with my relationships now, but for a long time I wasn’t — not because there was anything wrong with my past relationships, but because I believed what constituted deep relationships and true love were something greater than what I already had. I thought I was supposed to want something more.
“Would we feel lonely if we’d never heard of loneliness?” asks Sarah Fay in her essay on solitude. It’s an important question, and one I’ve been pondering more often as we near Thanksgiving Day.
There was a Thanksgiving Day not too long ago when I woke up tremendously lonely — I’d just gone through a breakup and was feeling emotionally raw and broken. As the morning went on my mood kept sinking; it hit that point where I feared I was about to spiral into a total depressive state. So to try to forestall it, I went for a walk on Santa Monica Beach. I thought the sun and nature would do me good — and it did, though what really helped was simply seeing other people around me lost in their own activities. They were going on their morning run, doing yoga on the grass, walking home with takeout coffee. They all looked kind of placid and zoned out. In short, it was just another day, and people were going about their routine. And I realized: The only reason I feel unhappy right now is because I’ve convinced myself this shouldn’t be just another day. But it is — today is just another day to do what I want to do.
There’s so much pressure on us to make our Thanksgivings look a certain way. I hope that this year, in some strange way, the coronavirus crisis gives everyone some relief from that pressure. Yes, 2020 has been a shitshow, but shitshows sometimes help us see the difference between what we thought we needed and what we really want.
I’ll be spending my Thanksgiving Day in my little cabin in Temecula. Wherever you are, I hope you, too, get to enjoy some moments of aloneness.
P.S. Three links you might enjoy:
Here’s Sarah Fay’s essay: On Solitude (and Isolation and Loneliness [and Brackets])
Did you know there’s an underground movement to topple the North Korean regime?
P..S. Recent reads starting with the book I most enjoyed: Acts of Infidelity and Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson, Quiet by Susan Cain, My Antonia by Willa Cather, What Would Frida Do by Arianna Davis.