This post is a little bit stream-of-consciousness, but everyone needs to pull a James Joyce once in a while.
Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice starts with these lines, with the protagonist, Antonio, griping:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
An entire play and a few subplots later we haven’t discovered the cause of Antonio’s malady. And Shakespeare has thrown away the opportunity to make a real statement about loneliness.
Loneliness is not the same as being alone — it is a feeling, rather than a physical state. You can be lonely even when surrounded by people. And everyone feels lonely to some degree once in a while.
This article is the best short thing I’ve read on the subject: thehappyphilosopher.com/loneliness/
“Existentialist philosophy views loneliness as essential to being human. Each of us comes into the world and eventually realizes that we are a separate person, alone. We travel through life alone and ultimately we die alone. Acknowledging and accepting this on a conscious level, and learning how to live our lives with some degree of grace and satisfaction is the human condition. Thus we all have some degree of existential loneliness.”
Thomas Wolfe called it the central piece of human existence.
The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people — not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.
Some people are more predisposed to it than others, and there is research that suggests this predisposition is linked to genetic, early upbringing and current environmental factors.
The article arrives at a great definition of loneliness, and within it, the cure:
Loneliness is the longing for connection.
Everything we do — outside of the necessities of survival — is driven by the need for greater connection.
Humanity created language, art, music and writing in part to try and get as close to connecting with one another as we can.
I would add commerce to that list too. And much of modern technology: the internet, social media, the plethora of messaging apps, the constant innovation in self-expression (camera apps, doodling apps, gifs, emojis, etc.) all have the same as-yet-unfulfilled purpose.
Selfies — what are they but a way to connect with your own self? It’s not a new invention either: Virginia Woolf’s great aunt used a camera in 1863 for self portraits to “help with the solitude of aging”. Here is a nice long read about selfies: https://medium.com/matter/selfie-fe945dcba6b0.
What is it about art that helps us find connection? Artists themselves are lonely people. They disappear into far-away places from Tahiti in the South-Pacific or a tiny room lost in crowded Montmartre and re-emerge with “art”. Art that creates a twang of connection — connection to some meaning that we derive from it, and perhaps to others with whom we can share this meaning.
But art is not limited to paintings or music or writing. I’ve heard of code (the computer software kind) being described as poetry. So software developers are artists of a kind too. The architecture of giant steel buildings and bridges is often given the same adjectives as other art, so it must be like art too. Much of humanity’s creations can be thought of as an attempt to solve our longing for connection — refer back to my earlier point about the need for connection underlying everything we do.
Much of our lives is spent looking for how to create this connection for ourselves. To that end, the market for anything that enables human connection is infinite. The internet and mobile ecosystems have come a long way, and the breakaway apps are always those that find a unique way to make us feel more connected. The waves aren’t over yet, and new paradigms and platforms (VR? the blockchain?) will enable more forms of connection.
I’d like to leave you with a question: does experiencing this connection depend on what we do, or how we do what we do? Can we experience connectedness in most things we did if only we knew how?