LONELINESS

Photo by Thomas de LUZE on Unsplash

Over the past few months, I have been reflecting on the difference between loneliness and solitude. In English, the two words have slightly different meanings; where loneliness has a more negative connotation, solitude has a more positive one. “Being alone” can be good or bad depending on the feelings and emotions attached to it. We might say, for example, that we enjoy “being along,” but when we say that we are “lonely” it is always value-laden and negative. Solitude, on the other hand, suggests that it is an aloneness that we have sought out, a space that we have carved out for ourselves in which we might devote needed attention on ourselves. 

We do not always experience loneliness when we are alone. On the other hand, we may feel very lonely in a crowd. In A Philosophy of Loneliness,[1] the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, observes:

Loneliness as such cannot be predicted by the number of people that surround an individual, but by whether the social interactions that individual has satisfy his or her desire for connection; that is, by whether they interpret those social interactions as meaningful. Loneliness is a subjective phenomenon.[2]

Svendsen distinguishes between chronic, transient, and situational loneliness and by extension between endogenous and exogenous loneliness.[3] Chronic loneliness describes the situation in which “the subject experiences constant pain on account of having insufficient ties to others.” 

Transient loneliness, Svendsen observes, “can overtake us at any moment, whether we are at a crowded party or home alone.” 

Situational loneliness is caused by life changes, such as the death of a friend or a family member. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people into isolation. This is particularly true for those living in skilled nursing care, who in order to protect themselves, are often isolated not just from their families but from the very people with whom they live in common. Many are left alone in their rooms with little to no contact to family and friends outside because of their current situation. 

During the COVOID-19 pandemic we find ourselves in a peculiar form of situational loneliness in which we desire to be with one another person — in school, church, or other social situations — but cannot fulfill the desire for the personal closeness that might mitigate our loneliness because in-person contact in these places is either restricted or forbidden.

Svendson did not have the pecularities of the loneliness brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in mind when he published this book in 2015. His main contention when he wrote the book is that loneliness, whatever the cause, has more to do with the interpretation of our own internal state, than it does with external factors. Loneliness is experienced as coming from external forces even if that is not truly the case. We may think that loneliness is a fact of our environment and that changing our environment will change our own perceptions of loneliness. Loneliness “is experienced as a lack of satisfying relationships to others” because either we may not have sufficient relationships with other people to satisfy our own expectations or because the relationships we do have do not provide the emotional closeness that we desire — or perhaps both may be the case. 

Loneliness feels as if it is being externally imposed on us, but perhaps we have some character traits or personal expectations of others that shape that perception. Do we, for example, feel lonely even in the midst of a large group of friends and family members? Do we expect other people to respond and somehow take care or reduce our own loneliness?  “The pain of loneliness,” Svendson argues, “is the pain of insufficient acknowledgment.” In other words, our perceived loneliness may in fact be caused by the expectations we bring to our relationships with others.‘

Instead of expecting others to take away our loneliness, Svendsen maintains, we must acknowledge and take responsibility for our own emotions. “Your emotions are your emotions,” he observes. “They belong to you.”[4] While you can’t choose what or how you feel, you “can try to change the way that you think” about the situations in which you experience loneliness. “You are not lonely because you are alone, you are alone because you are lonely.” It is a loneliness for which you must take responsibility. For despite everything, Svendson says, it is your loneliness.[5]

Loneliness in all its forms will come and go in life. Loss and isolation are a part of living. No matter how many connections you have with others, you may not be satisfied with the quality of these relationships. How then can you find a way to move from loneliness to making more meaningful connections with others? When you acknowledge and take responsibility for your loneliness,  that begins to transform your perception of that loneliness. Instead of looking to others to satisfy your longing for connections, you might examine what you expect of others. Rather than viewing your loneliness as something that originates outside yourself, ask yourself what you might do to begin to make more meaningful connections with others?  


[1] Lars Svendson, The Philosophy of Loneliness. Kerri Pierce, trans.  (London: Reaktion Books, Ltd., 2017.

[2] Svendson, 22-23.

[3] Svendson, 28. 

[4] Svendson, 133. 

[5] Svendson, 138. 

3 Replies to “LONELINESS”

  1. I worry sometimes that there’s something wrong with me because often I don’t feel a sense of loneliness in situations when I think I should feel lonely. We’re frequently reminded that human beings are “social” animals who thrive in the company of others, and I do feel lonely from time to time. But I’ve always, for as long as I can remember, embraced times of solitude, whether during time alone or in the midst of a crowd, and wondered, why?

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  2. Svendson’s point about taking responsibility for one’s own loneliness, I think, fails to reckon with the special circumstance of a time of pandemic. Granted, he does distinguish between chronic and situational loneliness, but that distinction is blurred in this discussion. You say, “Loneliness, whatever the cause, has more to do with the interpretation of our own internal state, than it does with external factors. . . . Loneliness ‘is experienced as a lack of satisfying relationships to others’ because either we may not have sufficient relationships with other people to satisfy our own expectations or because the relationships we do have do not provide the emotional closeness that we desire — or perhaps both may be the case.” This does not address our current covid-mandated isolation.

    Svendson fails to mention here that community — a church community, for example — can be a powerful antidote to loneliness. It’s a two-way benefit. It’s not just parishioners isolated by age or ailments who can become lonely; almost anyone in the community can suffer from its absence when the pandemic prevents us from gathering for worship, or study, or celebrations of lives beginning and ended. Individuals who depend upon that giving involvement in community suffer also when the ability to gather is taken away by “social distancing” rules. Hopefully the entire community will have sufficient interaction through streamed services and “Zoom” meetings and lots of phone calls to muddle through these difficult times.

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    1. Allen,

      Thank you for your comments. Svendson’s book was first published in Norwegian in 1995, long before the current COVID-19 pandemic. It is philosophical work based on a lot of social-science data. He was not of course writing about the unique kind of situational loneliness in which we find ourselves now as we are socially distanced and the forms of loneliness we are experiencing when we who formerly gathered for companionship are either not allowed or are severely restricted from doing so.

      My post admittedly only addressed a few of the many things Svendson discussed in the book and I did not try to summarize all of the book, just selecting a few things from it for reflection. (I left out an extended discussion about the difference between loneliness and solitude, saving that perhaps for another future post) Svendson does discuss the many ways that people can find happiness with others, including within communities like the church. Of course, he was not reflecting on what we are now experiencing when our ability to gather at church and in other social gatherings is, in many cases, still not legally permitted (or is severely restricted).

      What you say about church and other community gatherings is entirely right. We are suffering right now, some more than others from the ability to make the human connections we need to help sustain us. It is all the more reason that we, if we are feeling lonely, to reach out to others by technological means, and for us to do what we can to reach out to those we may sense are also lonely.

      Craig

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