On Loneliness and Understanding
As I write this, it is still the early hours of a temporally indefinable election aftermath in the United States. In this age, there is perhaps no sharper focus in which a thoughtful person may observe his own soul than an election time, as there is never a moment when the extent of such a person’s isolation is clearer than when everyone around him is participating with enthusiasm in the empty charades of modern deterioration — and there is no emptier charade in modern life than electoral politics.
A few days ago, a student with whom I frequently correspond asked me why it is important, or whether it is perhaps even a sign of personal weakness, to seek to be understood by others. Might the desire to be understood, she wondered, indicate a “sort of self-pity and romanticism in terms of escapism?”
My reply, to begin with, was that it is not important to be understood by “others” in the abstract. It is only important to be understood by a person who can understand, whom you trust to share your private mind without violating it, and whose understanding, you sense, might measurably enhance your life.
The desire to be understood, if it is sincere and not a performance, is therefore not romanticism, and it is the very opposite of escapism. It expresses a natural need of the rational animal, the wish for genuine communication. Being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. It is desirable to be alone — for thinking, learning, and working. It is not desirable to be lonely. Loneliness is the feeling that no honest contact is possible, that you are alone with yourself not by choice but because there is no existing bridge between your soul and another’s, no way to hear or be heard, even when you think you have something worth sharing.
To clarify and sharpen the distinction between being alone and being lonely, observe that you cannot be truly alone when you are among other people, but you certainly can be lonely among others. In fact, the deepest loneliness is the kind that is felt when you are with others, but suddenly realize that no true communication with them is possible. The harshest, most painful loneliness is felt not by the person alone on a hilltop or in a cave with his thoughts or his fears, but by the person sitting in the middle of a group of “friends,” eating dinner with family, participating in the excitement or anger of a great crowd, or sharing intimate time with someone today’s emotionally self-deluded would call a “lover,” who realizes at last that he and those others are on different planets, and that the closer their bodies are, the more vigorous or boisterous their interaction, the further apart their souls are. That, for me, is the very definition of loneliness.
The desire to be understood is neither self-pity nor romanticism. It is the rational wish to reveal the active accomplishments of your aloneness to another who is also actively alone. This is the wish that drove Socrates to badger his fellow Athenians about virtue and the good in the marketplace, that drove Plato to open the Academy, that drove Dante and Milton and Donne and Swift to write of their spiritual longing or despair, that drove Hobbes and Descartes through their heated correspondence about our knowledge of God’s mind, that drove every young couple that ever fell in love, and that drives every person who experiences a favorite writer as his or her dear friend. To give up the desire for such self-revelation, or more precisely that achievement of true visibility, is not a sign of strength, but rather only a sign that you are becoming cynical or bitter.
On the other hand, it is an essential mark of strength to resist all those convenient illusions of being understood that attract us merely because it is more comforting to imagine one is truly seen than to feel fully invisible. To seek understanding in false or foolish places — in “belonging” to a tribe, in the reason-smothering embrace of a crowd, in the mirage of shared material pleasure, in the mutual slavishness of gossip or group hatred — is far more damaging to the soul than any measure of real loneliness could be, because all such illusions steer us off the path toward the private self-development that is the necessary precondition of any true communication with another soul.