The Anatomy of Loneliness

by | Aug 28, 2018

Much is being made of loneliness among older adults nowadays. Veteran hospice caregiver and MD BJ Miller calls it “the scourge of old age.” Theresa May, the Prime Minister of England, recently appointed the first ever “Minister of Loneliness“ to address the problem in her country. The Japanese, in classic Nippon style, are inventing a whole line of robotic companions to keep the elderly company, from talking dogs to freaky humanoids that look (almost) like the real thing. Almost. Freaky.

So what gives?

Why are so many people, in so many countries, so lonely — an affliction the AARP says is as detrimental to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day?

I’ve got good news. It’s not us.

Almost anybody who knows me will tell you that I am one of the most outgoing, talkative, social butterflies they know, and yet…

I am lonely.

Yeah. A lot, as it turns out.

But it’s truly not my fault, and neither is it yours.

Take a look at these pictures I snapped a moment ago on a beautiful summer evening in our nation’s capital, Washington DC, in the common areas of my luxury apartment complex.

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The pool is lovely and clean. The air is warm and dry. A soft breeze is blowing. It’s Friday night about 7 PM, the end of the week. The outdoor grills stand ready and waiting for the hamburgers and marinated chicken they long to cook. Look at the space. It’s elegant and sophisticated. The gardens and grounds are meticulously kept by staff. There’s only one problem.

It’s empty.

Except for me.

Yeah, that’s right. That’s my one hotdog and my one glass of wine in the picture. I even brought down an extra glass just in case a neighbor dropped by…male, female, gay, straight, black, white…anybody…just to have someone to share a moment with.

Nope.

WTF? Is anybody out there?*

I’ve got to get out of this place. I’d rather have half the amenities with twice the people, except that two times zero is still zero.

Where will I find it? Not sure, but I suspect not in the US. Loneliness is embedded in our culture, as it is in much of the developed world. Loneliness is embedded in the built environment, where everyone has a private theater in their private homes with private expresso makers and a fenced in, backyard jungle gym where the kids play…privately. It’s embedded in the culture, where everyone stares at phones in the elevator and then jumps in their cars in the covered garage, driving off without so much as a wave.

We are fighting an uphill battle. I first learned that from Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, published in 2000. I think the problem is particularly acute for men, although we don’t talk about it.

***

Years ago, while visiting the tiny town of Vernazza, in the Cinque Terra on the Italian coast, I saw a group of men setting a long table in the town’s tiny Piazza. There was a white tablecloth, bottles of red wine, buckets of charcoal black steamed mussels plucked hours earlier from the nearby Ligurian Sea, and the golden glow of the sun setting over the higgly-piggly town. It was about 5 PM on a summer afternoon.

At 11 PM I returned from my adventures to find the men still there, drinking, talking, connecting in ways almost impossible for me to enjoy as a North American. I have never forgotten that scene, and I long to find it for myself, and to become a genuine part of it before I die.

There is a solution to my loneliness, and I intend to find it. I hope you find yours too, and if you can’t, please get in touch. I have an extra glass.

###

* Please understand, I do enjoy my alone time — just not too much of it. If it is in my power to change my circumstances, which in this case it is, then I will do so. Otherwise, well…as the Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “A man is as wretched as he has convinced himself that he is.”

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