More people are living alone than ever. In America, forty percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. Many people happily live alone—but others are tormented by the wail of the Lonesome Blues. That oldie can echo in our ears even when we’re surrounded by friends and family.
Loneliness is a common brand of human suffering. Many believe that loneliness is an inescapable fact of human existence, a curse we’re fated to endure from birth to death. The novelist Thomas Wolfe spoke to this idea: “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”
Wolfe was famous and admired during his lifetime, which apparently offered little solace or good company for his loneliness. Even “super-famous” Albert Einstein succumbed to the misery. “It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely,” he candidly commented. Being a rich celebrity doesn’t appear to help: “Hollywood is loneliness beside the swimming pool,” observed the actress Liv Ullmann.
Loneliness appears to have infiltrated if not occupied human nature. Impervious to the exhilarations of fame, wealth, and power, it produces assorted misery, ill health, and increased risk of heart disease. Maybe we can’t exterminate it, but we can see and understand the emotional weaknesses that make loneliness more painful than it would otherwise be. Being human is challenging enough. We don’t have to endure unnecessary suffering.
Most people who suffer with chronic loneliness are entangled in unresolved emotional attachments. Unwittingly, they chose to recycle unresolved emotions from their past. Usually these are associated with feeling unloved, rejected, betrayed, and abandoned.
Although it defies common sense, we go looking for old hurts that are unresolved from our past. We do not do this in order to resolve the hurts. Instead, we do it to relive the hurts. Whatever is unresolved in our psyche produces inner conflict that has a life of its own. The conflict can persist—and often get worse—until the day we die. The conflict behind loneliness is often our wish to feel loved and connected to life versus our unconscious willingness to go on feeling the old familiar abandonment and sense of being unloved.
We can be quite helpless to stop the suffering and self-defeat produced by the inner conflict when we don’t clearly enough see the nature of the conflict. Unconsciously, we deny that a conflict even exists: We offer up our loneliness as “proof” that we’re not colluding in our own suffering. Our unconscious defense maintains: “Are you nuts! I don’t want to feel unloved! I’m not clinging to old hurts! Can’t you see, in my loneliness, how desperately I want love and connection in my life!”
Who would have thought that loneliness can be part of a psychological defense? The loneliness defends us from the inner truth we hate to acknowledge because that truth is so amazing and humbling. In other words, we produce loneliness in order to cover up our willingness to experience again and again what’s unresolved in our psyche. The defense is offered up to our superego, the hidden master of our personality, which protests against our indulgence in our suffering. Here’s another rendition of the defense: “How can you suggest that I’m secretly invested in feeling unloved and abandoned! My loneliness proves how much I want to be loved. Look how much I suffer from the feeling of not being loved! Look at how much I hate being alone! Surely that proves that I’m not still clinging to the opposite feeling.”
The individual can make this defense more convincing by feeling more intensely the pain of loneliness. As with most of our psychological defenses, we often have to increase the level of suffering and self-defeat in order for the defense to continue over time to be effective (in the sense of deluding us). This produces (when loneliness or some other symptom such as anger is used as a defense) a stubborn determination to hold on to the misery of it.
Other factors can be at play on the field of loneliness. We can be fearful of not being accepted by others and fearful of being a disappointment to them. This means we’re emotionally attached to feelings of not having value and not being worthy. In a sense, we’re abandoning our own self by not believing in our self. “It’s so lonely when you don’t even know yourself,” an observer once noted. It’s more to the point to say, “It’s so lonely because you don’t know yourself.”
A harsh superego or inner critic, one that mocks and harasses us at the slightest provocation, can also create more feelings of isolation and loneliness. So can our inner passivity, which can paralyze us in a helpless conviction that there’s no escape from loneliness.
A remedy was proposed by Hermann Hesse, the Nobel Laureate who wrote Siddartha, a novel about the spiritual journey of an Indian man at the time of Buddha. Hesse said, “We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being.”
Key words in this passage are, “But then our solitude is overcome . . .“ The pain of our solitude is overcome when we’re sincerely interested in escaping this suffering and have the insight to do so. It helps to stay conscious of our resistance to letting go of suffering.
Once we see and begin to undo our attachments to feeling passive, rejected, unloved, and abandoned, we do, as Hesse said, connect with our innermost self and the whole of existence. Loneliness no longer fits across our shoulders. It falls by the wayside, a worn-out cloak that fades in the distance along with the wail of the Lonesome Blues, as we go forward with a lighter heart.