Lesson 13 — Transcending Loneliness
What is loneliness, anyway? Why is it? And how can we best deal with it?
Loneliness exists because it helped human beings and some of our primate forebears to survive and reproduce. Reptiles and fish lay eggs and then (in most cases) leave those eggs unattended. This works because newborn reptiles and fish are able to fend for themselves immediately after hatching, and because enough eggs are laid to allow for losses to predators. As evolution progressed, animal life became more complex and began exploiting new ecological niches. These developments had their price. The young of the new, more complex, species took longer to mature, and it became necessary for parents to begin committing time to safeguarding, feeding, and rearing their young.
Like fish and reptiles, birds also lay eggs. Unlike fish and reptiles, one or both parent birds generally hang around till the eggs hatch, and then feed the hatchlings until they can manage on their own. Ordinarily, this involves the commitment of a few weeks of parental time.
Mammalian offspring also require parental care. The mother nurses them, and in most cases introduces them to at least a few survival skills. The young of small mammals mature rapidly, and like birds, are typically on their own a few weeks after birth. Large mammals — lions, horses, cows — take longer to mature, with the period of parental tending likely to be several months rather than several weeks. Still, even that period is quite brief compared with the extended period of parenting required for primate species. Chimps, gorillas, and human children take years to reach an age where they can function on their own.
With years of caring being required to raise a young human, there is obvious value in having a mate committed to that task, and in having other supportive people around. Cooperative food gathering and food sharing, group tending of offspring, and group protection against external threats are just a few of the benefits. Loneliness was one of nature’s ways of inducing our ancestors to find committed mates and form such groups.
As with other biological characteristics, loneliness did not arise from any evolutionary master plan. Rather, it arose by chance and is with us today because it helped the individuals who first experienced it to survive and reproduce. It’s not hard to picture what happened. All types of mammals have physical brain structures that create feelings and emotional experiences. Hunger, fear, anger, and sexual desire are perhaps the most universal of these strong feelings, but there are others too. Let’s imagine that, by chance, a mammal was born with a brain which created mental discomfort every time the animal was away from others of its kind for a prolonged period. That discomfort (those feelings of loneliness) would have prodded the individual to return to the others. Because group living increased the probability that this animal and its offspring would survive, the genetic coding which produced the lonely-feelings brain design was passed on. Eventually, loneliness became a universal feature of the human species, and (we presume) of most other primate species as well.
The way we deal with the pain of loneliness is, for many of us, not very skillful. When faced with any form of distress our usual tendency is to want to get rid of it fast. Thus, in dealing with the pain of loneliness many people gravitate toward quick fixes, and some of those fixes have negative consequences. A common fix is to get into an intimate relationship, and if the distress of loneliness is disturbing enough, that might mean almost any relationship. Getting intimate does make lonely feelings go away. But as we know, in ill-starred relationships other forms of distress soon arise. A second approach is to kill the pain chemically through alcohol or some other drug. Still another is to eat the pain away. The pangs of loneliness do feel a lot like the pangs of hunger, and for some people eating lessens the distress.
To an extent greater than we might like to admit, loneliness drives the human race (including ourselves), and determines our behavior. We humans will go to all sorts of extremes to end the pain of loneliness. We’ll get into made-in-hell relationships. We’ll eat. We’ll drink. We’ll turn to almost anything that occupies the mind and distracts us temporarily from those dreaded lonely feelings.
There are also some skillful ways of dealing with loneliness. Not all relationships are made in hell, and one positive approach is to be patient. We can put off entering an intimate relationship until we have met one of those special people with whom we can share intellectually and spiritually as well as emotionally and physically.
Another positive approach is to engage ourselves dynamically with life. In my experience, whenever my life has been characterized by fullness, purpose, and significance, loneliness has not been an issue. At such times, lonely feelings were either totally gone or had receded far into the background — making the lack of an intimate relationship quite tolerable. On the other hand, when my days have not been full, purposeful, and creative, the lonely ache was often present and strong.
Another positive approach is to get to know our lonely feelings, accept them — even make friends with them. We think we know those feelings already, but do we really? Most of us — in our hurry to get rid of them — have gotten only a distorted glimpse. The next time you feel lonely, pay close attention to the actual feelings that constitute the lonely state of mind. Are the sensations themselves really terrible and awful? Or do you find, when you focus on them, that they are not much different from hunger pangs or minor stomach distress?
As pains go, the physical discomfort caused by loneliness is not all that horrendous. Accepting it instead of trying to push it away is quite feasible. Like the hunger pangs we get when dieting, we need to see the pain of loneliness as simply one more brain-generated message. When we diet, the rational mind knows that we are not starving and that it’s safe to allow hunger pangs to remain present in conscious experience. In the same way, we can quite safely co-exist with the pit-of-the-stomach loneliness messages that the brain creates. They will not destroy us.
Our efforts to make peace with loneliness can also help us gain insight into how the ego works. Evolution put lonely feelings at the core of our being, but we have never accepted either the feelings or their reason for being there. All our lives self has resisted those feelings. I have wanted them to go away, and have sometimes done unskillful things to make them go away. Is not a mind full of wanting the chief expression of I/ego/self? Some go even further; they maintain that the wanting mind is the ego.
When we stop trying to get rid of lonely feelings and fully accept them, when we allow ourselves to get intimate with loneliness, we discover that this fate worse than death that we have been avoiding all our lives is not that at all. We discover the joy that lies beyond wanting — the joy that lies beyond ego, beyond self.
The truth of the human situation is that not one of us is separate from the cosmic process. We are all part of something large and wonderful, and while we may at times feel disconnected from the larger whole, we in fact are not. When we come to the point where we can totally accept any feelings of loneliness that may arise — and at the same time see the interconnectedness of everything — our struggle to become free and at peace is just about over.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
All right, fess up. Search your soul. What is your experience of loneliness? When and under what circumstances have you felt deeply lonely? Do you now? Describe the territory.
Cop proposes several “skilful [sic] ways” to deal with loneliness. Do any of them appeal to you, work for you?
Have you ever experienced the cosmic connectedness—”the joy that lies beyond ego, beyond self”—that he describes in the last two paragraphs of the chapter?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
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Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.