Loners who are perfectly fine being alone, and do not always find the need to rely on others for some company are some of the most mature and intelligent people you will come across, and there is so much we can learn from them. But before you go any further, it is crucial that you understand the difference between loneliness and solitude, and what all you can learn from loners.
Loneliness is a complex and unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship. The pain of loneliness is such that, throughout history, solitary confinement has been used as a form of torture and punishment.
More than just painful, loneliness is also damaging. Lonely people eat and drink more and exercise and sleep less. They are at higher risk of developing psychological problems, such as depression, psychosis, and addiction, as well as physical problems, such as infection, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Loneliness is a particular problem of modernity. One U.S. study found that between 1985 and 2004, the proportion of people reporting having no one to confide in almost tripled. According to a poll carried out in 2017 for the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, three-quarters of older people in the U.K. are lonely. Shockingly, two-fifths of respondents agreed with the statement, “sometimes an entire day goes by, and I haven’t spoken to anybody.”
Some of the factors behind these stark statistics include smaller household sizes, greater migration, rising self-employment, higher media consumption, and longer life expectancy. Large conglomerations built on productivity and consumption at the expense of connection and contemplation can feel profoundly alienating.
Related: 8 Advantages Of Life As A Loner
The Internet has become the great comforter and seems to offer it all: news, knowledge, music, entertainment, shopping, relationships, and even sex. But over time, it foments envy and division, confuses our needs and priorities, desensitizes us to violence and suffering, and, by creating a false sense of connectedness, entrenches superficial relationships at the cost of living ones.
Man evolved over millennia into one of the most social and interconnected of all animals. Suddenly, he finds himself apart and alone, not on a mountaintop, in a desert, or on a raft at sea, but in a city of millions, in reach but out of touch. For the first time in human history, he has no practical need, and therefore no pretext, to interact and form attachments with his fellow men and women.
But, against nature, there are a few people who actively choose to remove themselves from the rest of society, or at least, not to actively seek out social interaction. Such “loners” (the very term is pejorative, implying, as it does, abnormality and deviousness) may revel in their rich inner life or simply dislike or distrust the company of others, which, they feel, comes with more costs than benefits.
Timon of Athens, who lived at around the same time as Plato, began life in wealth, lavishing money upon his flattering friends, and, in accordance with his conception of friendship, never expecting anything in return. When he ran out of coin, all his friends deserted him, reducing him to the hard toil of laboring the fields.
One day, as Timon tilled the earth, he uncovered a pot of gold, and suddenly all his old friends came piling back. But rather than welcome them with open arms, he cursed them and drove them away with sticks and clods of earth. Timon declared his hatred of humankind and withdrew into the forest, where, much to his chagrin, people began to seek him out as some kind of holy man.
Did Timon feel lonely in the forest? Probably not, because he did not believe he lacked for anything. As he no longer valued his friends or their companionship, he could not have desired or missed them—even though he may have pined for a better class of person, and, in that limited sense, felt lonely.