As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, loneliness is not so much an objective state of affairs as a subjective state of mind, a function of desired and achieved levels of social interaction, and also of type or types of interaction.
Lovers often feel lonely in the single absence of their beloved, even when completely surrounded by friends and family. Jilted lovers feel much lonelier than lovers who are merely apart from their beloved, indicating that loneliness is not merely a matter of the amount or degree of interaction, but also of the potential or possibility for interaction. Conversely, it is common to feel lonely within a marriage because the relationship is no longer validating or nurturing us, but diminishing us and holding us back.
And yet for many people, marriage is, among other things, an attempt to flee from their lifelong loneliness and escape from their inescapable demons. At the bottom, loneliness is not the experience of lacking, but the experience of living. It is part and parcel of the human condition.
Unless a person is resolved, it can only be a matter of time before the feeling of loneliness resurfaces, often with a vengeance. On this account, loneliness is the manifestation of the conflict between our desire for meaning and the absence of objective meaning from the universe, an absence that is all the more glaring in modern societies that have sacrificed traditional and religious structures of meaning on the thin altar of truth.
So much explains why people with a strong sense of purpose and meaning, or simply with a strong narrative, such as Nelson Mandela or St. Anthony of the Desert, are protected from loneliness regardless of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
St. Anthony sought out loneliness precisely because he understood that it could bring him closer to the real questions and value of life. He spent 15 years in a tomb and 20 years in an abandoned fort in the desert of Egypt before his devotees persuaded him to withdraw from his seclusion to instruct and organize them, whence his epithet, “Father of All Monks” (“monk” and “monastery” derive from the Greek, monos, “solitary”, “alone”).
Anthony emerged from the fort not ill and emaciated, as everyone had been expecting, but healthy and radiant, and expired in his 106th year, which in the fourth century must in itself have counted as a minor miracle. St. Anthony did not lead a life of loneliness, but one of solitude.
Loneliness, the pain of being alone, is damaging; solitude, the joy of being alone, is empowering, liberating. Our unconscious requires solitude to process and unravel problems, so much so that our body imposes it upon us each night in the form of sleep. By removing us from the constraints, distractions, and influences imposed upon us by others, solitude frees us to reconnect with ourselves, assimilate ideas, and generate identity and meaning.
For Nietzsche, people without the aptitude or opportunity for solitude are mere slaves, because they have no alternative but to parrot culture and society. In contrast, anyone who has unmasked society naturally seeks out solitude, which becomes the source and guarantor of a more authentic set of values and ambitions:
“I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern. When I am among the many, I live as many do, and I do not think I really think. After a time, it always seems as if they want to banish my self from myself and rob me of my soul.”
Solitude removes us from the mindless humdrum of everyday life into a higher consciousness that reconnects us with our deepest humanity and also with the natural world, which quickens into our muse and companion. By setting aside dependent emotions and constricting compromises, we free ourselves up for problem solving, creativity, and spirituality. If we can embrace it, this opportunity to adjust and refine our perspectives creates the strength and security for still greater solitude and, in time, the substance and meaning that guards against loneliness.