Loneliness

Loneliness is the pain of the illusion of separate existence. As we are each constitutionally subject to this illusion, we are each given the ill-wrapped gift of loneliness. We have no choice but to be offered this bitter gift, though we have wide latitude in the manner and style of our reception. Most of us find some way to refuse it.

Loneliness has many faces, mostly sad and long. Perhaps the most poignant is the imagined face of a far away loved one. Here loneliness takes on the face of the one missed. This one is lonely because that one is not present. It would be easier to bear being alone if we did not long for our distant beloved; it is not so much being alone we feel as being without them. Love bestows a world upon the one loved, which is reflected in the way our family becomes our world, our private realm within the home. One misses hearth, and is only homesick. When one misses family, one is lonely.

Another face of loneliness is the wayfarer, who is not homesick but sick of home, and so has gone off a-wandering. The homeless traveler has a loneliness that is not simply a longing to be with one's own. It is the loneliness that is felt when one lifts one's pack, and knows that all one's belongings are on one's back. It is the trackless wanderer looking for their own way, the pioneer, who only now and then is troubled or delighted by memory of those left behind. This is the loneliness of going it alone.

A third face of loneliness is the blank stare of social isolation. These are the nameless faces going by on subway cars, focused on the infinite distance to avoid any dangerous interaction. This is the loneliness of the long-distance plodder, the tendency toward mindless repetition and empty formalities. Drudgery is friend to this loneliness, for at least it whiles away the hours and minimizes change. It also takes root in families that do not communicate, in the silences where things that should be said never get said. Isolation within intimacy, a kind of homesickness at home, is suffered by anyone whose relationships have become routine, and whose passions conventional.

We can even miss the people we are with if they (or we) have built a wall of silent toleration or contempt between us. We can isolate ourselves within the very relationships we enter in order to stave off our loneliness. As this shows, the logic of loneliness can be an intricate dialectic, but it is no less strong for being delicate. Suffice it to say that we are often in some measure the architects of our own social isolation, that we can fear togetherness just as much or even more than we fear our aloneness. A silence that destroys togetherness (communication) can also preserve togetherness (maintain a stable status quo).

A fourth face of loneliness is an aging face, for age has its own loneliness. Each of us faces death alone, and age brings us swifter and swifter toward that lonely existential question. Older eyes look more steadily upon death. I do not mean that the young face death less than the old, only that any older self has reflected more on it than that same self younger. This face of loneliness may be found by looking in the mirror, and seeing the lines around the eyes, increasing yearly, reminding us of our future. Such loneliness is a condition of existence, even as death is our unconditional non-existence. Loneliness is here the mirror image of death, and the lines of age are just existential worry lines, deepening with age. How much fear of loneliness is really only a masked fear of our death? Nor is this fourth face capable only of a worried expression; it tolerates different expressions, as many as there are different attitudes to death.

But now I discern in this crowd another lonely face, not this aged mortal one that deepens furrowed brows and gives crow-feet to eyes, but a youthful face, a youthful fear. Is there not a kind of loneliness shown in the timid stare of innocence, fearful that it may be wrong, or inadequate, or unlovable, or simply missed? This is a bright face pained by the prospect of never being picked, of being overlooked, of being left undiscovered, unable to attract anyone towards one. The aged fear ultimate or the last aloneness; youth fear never being found. Behold the loneliness of the green wallflower, standing off, at the edge of the crowd. This is the pitied periphery, not the invisibility in our midst of the elderly or other lost minorities. The loneliness of the ripe apple, left on the tree at harvest, of being passed over in one's prime, unrecognized and thus never given the opportunity to grow through relationship. This loneliness we each feel a little when we are shown in public to have been in error. This is like the loneliness of being singled out as wrong.

This fifth face of loneliness expresses the awkward uncertainty of young adults and all novice lovers. It can be shown by shy gawking, a nervous glare, or a quick looking away. This loneliness stares at its feet and hides its hands. It is no more the reserve of the young, than the isolation of death is exclusively felt by the old. Whatever frightens us silly, and makes our speech mumbled and hesitant, dresses us in this fifth mask of aloneness.

Yet there is something sacred in this changeable innocence, as it is a fear of being found wanting, and of being accountable for one's failures, of being responsible for what happens. It powers great reforms in us, which may be superficial attempts to shape up our appearance, or deeper reflections that transform us from the inside out. If we reflect on our aloneness long enough, we realize no one else is there to deal with it. We must either paper it over, or learn to live with it. By long looking at it, gradually the eyes open, and one sees this loneliness blight afflicts one and all, a universal malady. This may seem to make matters worse, but actually the paradox of the shared experience of aloneness is enough to destroy the illusion of separateness, if only the eyes are allowed time to adjust to the new light.

And then another face of loneliness arises, the face of truth, an honest expression, a radiant hue. This face shines almost to holiness, knowing it is alone before its god. And it is OK with that, except for this infinite flame of longing that leaps toward the divine bosom. But this is a joyful longing, and though the pain of truth sings its lament of separation, the song its god hears is a happy paean. For truly the very boundaries of my body depend on pressure and temperatures at which I find myself. What is inside me was once outside me, and it was no other stuff then than it is now. The food on my plate is the labour and life of others, and only it maintains me. I do not retain it or anything, for it all passes through me, like these words, which are just another bridge to the other, to you all. The face of truth smiles and gets along, but how lonely, how alone, how wayward! The only self it expresses is its relation to other, and how lonely this path, when the world is run by self-interest and competitive self-serving. Where indeed is this face to be found in this world? For I have heard of the face of truth, but I have never seen it, and I am a long-time mirror-gazer.

'Truth is a pathless land' — said Krishnamurti. It is a wilderness in which one must make one's own way. There is no road carved out of the mountain, and we all know where the well-intentioned paved road leads. This is the loneliness of truth I mean, not unlike that wayfarer face already mentioned. Since the topic is personal, I will mention a personal story, as it relates to Café Philosophy and its origin, and allows me a graceful exit from this crowd of lonely faces I have drawn.

Years ago, finding myself without employment, but an undimmed love of philosophy, I vowed to take it to the cafes. But this vow was peculiarly inactive, even lethargic. Only when a new café in my neighborhood graciously put itself at my disposal did I do anything. As it happens, my initial reaction to the offer, to my own surprise, was anger. I stomped out of the café in a huff. In a few moments I found myself at my place in front of a mirror. Only then the oddity of my emotion became clear to me. Why was I angry? The answer came after some staring: there was no one to show me how. I had to do it alone. Nobody had prepared me for this. The beginning of café philosophy in Victoria was this pathless loneliness. I never dreamed it would grow into a community that abates the pandemic of loneliness in our world, at least locally. It began in a daunting loneness; but it was not an attempt to erase or address that loneness. If it has provided me with a sense of belonging, a welter of friends and philosophical companions, then I take that all as bonus. Though I did not foresee this, I am no less grateful for it. So I end with thanks everyone who attends and who reads this. I am glad I have so many interesting people to talk to!