To be alone is one of the greatest evils for a person.
I've always appreciated James' idea of loneliness as a threat to the human being. We don't give it much thought through the societal bedlam and over-scheduled lives. Many of us are constantly surrounded by both people and stimuli- auditory, visual, olfactory. Yet, is it possible to be lonely even when you are with others? Is it possible to be woefully alone while surrounded by friends? I say, indeed, it is. In fact, I believe this state of existential loneliness happens often in societies where disingenuous, superficial relationships flourish in commonplace. We rarely pause long enough to build the types of authentic and circumspect relationships necessary to avert loneliness- Martin Buber's idea of the "I-Thou" relationship. More importantly, many rarely journey inward to build the most important relationship of all- the relationship with the self. Loneliness is a way of life in 21st Century Western culture, and the cost may be far too high.
James Lynch, PhD, professor of psychiatry and author of the book, The Broken Heart, asserts that loneliness is one of the leading causes of premature death in society. The idea that chemical perturbations- the evolution of cellular regulation- incites emotional responses such as love, anger, fear, and loneliness set the stage for modern medicine. Lynch disagrees with the Cartesian model that the language of emotion is separate from the body. Instead, he posits, the somatic reaction to stress, or loneliness, or grief is the body's way of communicating its suffering. He asserts that some physical illnesses- cellular dysphoria- occur as a direct result of our bodies' failure to connect with others - and frankly, our true selves: "Because we do tell people to hide their suffering, their vulnerability and loneliness, and so they also hide their beauty...when you wall off your capacity to feel pain, you also diminish your capacity to feel pleasure."
Lynch extrapolates the result: narcissism. Narcissism, he counters, means no self, no authentic self. These are people who are most likely to suffer heart disease, high blood pressure, and other chronic illnesses according to Lynch. They cannot feel, really feel, their feelings at all. They do not know themselves, and they have no boundaries between themselves and the world. Narcissists get stuck in their suffering because they are wholly incapable of seeking out meaning; the eventual result being deriving joy even amidst pain. These types of individuals- very lonely individuals- are the least likely to awaken after a trauma- the least likely to recognize that fulfillment and pathos coexist throughout the human experience. Lynch says he has the scientific evidence to back his postulations.
And I would further ask: How can we be in a real relationship with another if we are not in real relationship, first, with ourselves? The longest journey is the journey inward. It may begin in loneliness, but it will most certainly end in knowing the self better than ever. And the reward for this may be the gain of genuine, sustaining relationships and connectedness that enable us to truly be with others- and ourselves- during our short time on this earth.
"Too many things are occurring for even a big heart to hold."
(Art entitled "Loneliness" by Santosh Gupta)