All the Lonely People

Is it so that everything we do is done out of fear of loneliness? Pascal Mercier

I’ve always considered loneliness to be due to social isolation, to living alone without a friend or a companion to be with from time to time. In Lonely: A Memoir Emily White takes issue with this conception. She argues that chronic, “genetically programmed” loneliness is qualitatively different from situational loneliness.

In her essay, On Living Alone, Vivian Gornick voiced a similar view, “Loneliness, when it came, came—then and now—like a surge of physical illness.”

White also emphasizes that chronic loneliness is also different from depression and is not merely a symptom of that condition. It is a state entirely of its own, separate and always there, even when you are engaged in a close, intimate relationship. There are medications that lessen the impact of depression; there are none for loneliness.

White writes “…no one’s discovered a vaccine against loneliness; there’s no prayer or charm or safeguard I’ve discovered that can be relied on to keep the state at bay for good.”

Emily White was trained as a lawyer and Lonely is written in the manner of a well-orchestrated legal brief—carefully researched, systematically organized, a bit repetitive, but also personally revealing. “I used to be a lawyer and what I was looking for was evidence.”

Her book is that altogether rare blend of personal experience combined with empirical research. Her evidence is drawn from studies carried out by psychological and medical investigators, the accounts of a fair number of individuals who have responded to her blog and advertisements on Craigslist, as well as her journal record of a lifelong struggle with this affliction.

White’s experience with chronic loneliness began when she was a child, (her parents divorced when she was four and she lived a solitary life as her mother was away at work most of the day), continued through various adult friendships, other causal relationships, and current life with her partner, Danielle whom she met while playing in a lesbian basketball league. Still she notes that her loneliness is still lurking in the background, even though “the state was no longer as intense and all-encompassing as it had been.

Loneliness, as White often reminds the reader, is a state we don’t often talk about. Few people seem willing to tell others, even their closest friends, that they are often lonely. “Loneliness—especially chronic loneliness—is a state most people work incredibly hard to hide. It is not something alluded to even in intimate conversations.” You might admit you are feeling depressed, but rarely if ever that you are feeling lonely.

White asks, why hide this sometimes severe condition? She argues that loneliness deserves the same attention as any other emotional problem such as anxiety or depression. “There is no need for this silence, no need for the same and self-blame it creates. There’s nothing wrong with loneliness, and we need to start acknowledging this through a wider and more open discussion of the state.” This is precisely what she has done in this volume and, as one who knows well what it means to be lonely I praise her effort to do so.

While she has struggled with loneliness for years and tried every conceivable activity to alleviate it, sociability was rarely a problem for her and she was rarely at a loss for friends. All she yearned for was “the quiet presence of another person.”

“Passive company is something that’s hard to define but easy to recognize. It’s the comfortable, quiet state of cooking as your spouse reads the paper at the kitchen table, or half-listening from the study while your brother takes a call in the living room. Passive company provides us with the chance to simply be with someone else. It’s time, as Glenn Stalker put is, “when nothing much is being said.”

However, White concludes with a remark mystifies me: “…knowing what I do about loneliness—how it can lead to early death, and dementia, and illness, and cognitive changes, and headaches, and stress and threat—I haven’t tried to organize my life in a way that might keep it away.”

Yet I thought that in living with her partner, she had finally found the loneliness cure that she had been seeking all these years.