Feelings of being lonely are on the rise. In this post I explore a few ideas about how Stoicism could help to combat this. Coping with this, accepting it, and learning how to direct our own lives with some degree of grace and satisfaction.
Please read my disclaimer.
How many people feel lonely?
It is estimated that around 60 million people in the United States, or 20% of the total population, feel a sense of being alone. In the book, Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives, it is stated that 12% of Americans have no one with whom to spend free time or to discuss important matters. Other research suggests that this rate has been increasing over time. The General Social Survey found that between 1985 and 2004, the number of people the average American discusses important matters with decreased from three to two. Additionally, in the book, The Lonely American: Drifting apart in the 21st century, it is suggested that the number of Americans with no one to discuss important matters with tripled.
Life is very long when you’re lonely.
Morrissey – The Queen Is Dead
So, loneliness is, without a doubt, a problem we all face. Sometimes, I get lonely. I’m sure you do too? A surprising number of people fear being alone. Maybe we all do to some extent? We go through periods in our lives when we feel isolated. Perhaps loneliness is the essence of being human? Each human being comes into the world alone, travels through life as a separate person, and dies alone. Coping with this, accepting it, and learning how to direct our own lives with some degree of grace and satisfaction is the human condition.
People can experience loneliness for many reasons and many life events may cause it. These include the lack of friends during childhood and adolescence, or the physical absence of meaningful people around a person. Many people experience loneliness for the first time when they are left alone as infants. It is also a common, though temporary, consequence of a breakup, divorce, or loss of any important long-term relationship. In these cases, it may stem both from the loss of a specific person and from the withdrawal from social circles caused by the event or the associated sadness.
Alone With Your Thoughts
Loneliness starts with a thought, and awareness of your thoughts and emotions is an important part of Stoicism. Awareness of how these change, moment to moment. Awareness of what is and is not within the sphere of your control. And things are almost never in your control. Thoughts are difficult to control, even if we’re in a stable loving relationship or we have good friends or happy children.
Maybe the feeling of loneliness creeps up on us even if we are in a crowd of people. Or in the middle of a party and you feel lonely due to not talking to enough people. Loneliness is a subjective experience; if a person thinks they are lonely, then they are lonely. What may make a person lonely is thought that they need more social interaction or a certain type of social interaction that is not currently available. Conversely, you can be alone and not feel lonely. Even though there is no one around that person is not lonely because there is no desire for social interaction.
Fear plays a part too. We fear being without a partner, or friends and family. We fear traveling alone in strange places. We fear failure. We fear being alone. We’ve all felt it, deep within us, though we try to avoid this fear.
Reflect for Enlightenment
It’s enlightening to reflect on this feeling of loneliness. I recommend this exploration to others who feel alone from time to time.
If you don’t make the time for this activity then you may avoid the feeling of loneliness. You may well attempt to fill the void with comfort. This isn’t surprising as it’s a human thing to do. We all want to lead a comfortable life after all. We don’t want to tackle the unwanted feelings we might have.
But if you face these feelings then you can learn a lot. Open up to the loneliness. Feel it. See it. Then you can move on and start to grown. At this point you learn about you. What is means to have unwanted thoughts and how to cope with them.
You can also help to address feelings of despair and loneliness by reaching out and connecting with others. By doing this we are no longer along. We get the chance to share. Share out thoughts, problems, experiences, and in some cases, our suffering too. More on this later.
Another way is consider being along in a different way. You could consider it as empowering. Instead of seeing being alone as something to fear, see it as an opportunity to grow and to get to know yourself. By learning emotional self-sufficiency you become stronger.
Your relationships will become stronger too. If you aren’t comfortable with being alone, then being in a relationship is going to difficult. You’ll become dependent on the other person for emotional needs. You’ll want to the other person to validate you. To pay attention to you and your wants. Who wants to be in a relationship with a needy, desperate person? A more attractive quality is confidence and self-sufficiency.
Once you’ve understood this, you’ll be in a much better place in your relationship. You’re now two whole people, coming together for the benefit of the both of you.
I mentioned the importance of your thoughts earlier in this post. To help control unhelpful thoughts of loneliness, bring yourself to the the present moment. Appreciate what is happening around you, and your thoughts about these events. This takes practice but with practice it begins to become habitual. Over time you’ll find that suffering tends not to be the present moment but your thoughts about it. What you expected to happen versus what is happening.
Sometimes even when it appears that some external thing is causing your suffering, question what the actual cause is. Is it is an internal emotional reaction? Emotional reactions such as anger or loneliness, are usually outside your control. And why should you judge your situation on, something which is outside of your control?
You may think that you are lonely right now. Your mind begins to construct reasons why this is relevant in the present moment. Question are these reasons true and useful in the present moment? If not then can you trust the emotions they generate? If you accept that and uncontrollable emotion has arisen try to give it the time and space to dissipate. Don’t try to deny it. Recognise it, allow it to pass and move on.
Cosmopolitanism and the Social Connection
Try to make a connection with others. The Stoics understood that humans are social creatures. It’s natural to want to form relationships. We were made for each other, designed to strengthen each other with sociability and love.
This Cosmopolitanism can be traced back to Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412 B.C.), the founding father of the Cynic movement in Ancient Greece. Of Diogenes it is said:
Asked where he came from, he answered: ‘I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês)
This was a ground-breaking concept, because the broadest basis of social identity in Greece at that time was either the individual city-state or the Greeks (Hellenes) as a group. The Stoics, who later took Diogenes’ idea and developed it into a full blown concept, stressed that each human:
dwells […] in two communities – the local community of our birth, and the community of human argument and aspiration
A common way to understand Stoic cosmopolitanism is through Hierocles‘ circle model of identity that states that we should regard ourselves as concentric circles, the first one around the self, next immediate family, extended family, local group, citizens, countrymen, humanity. Within these circles human beings feel a sense of “affinity” or “endearment” towards others, which the Stoics termed Oikeiôsis. The task of world citizens becomes then to
draw the circles somehow towards the centre, making all human beings more like our fellow city dwellers, and so forth.
But while cosmopolitanism is important we must also learn to be reliant on ourselves. Endure solitude well – even finding it pleasurable. But we thrive when we are with others. Even Marcus Aurelius, who found the company of others difficult, forced himself to be social for the good of the empire of those he loved. Seneca’s Letter 9 has some insightful things to say about friendship and loneliness, and making friends.
Try your best to make the best friends and what you get is what you get. What’s in your control is putting effort into finding the best friends and also your attitude about being alone. Be aware of them and change these things if you need to.
How do you face being alone, or feelings of loneliness? Leave a comment below: