*note: One of my colleagues recently wrote a piece that explored how loneliness can paradoxically be remedied through quality time alone, quality being a key word. This short piece attempts to explore a different aspect of loneliness. It is primarily directed towards the A-types who sometimes put relationships on the back burner, consistently making it secondary to our personal and professional development.
Earlier in the semester, I found myself experiencing a certain tension between disciplining myself to time alone and spending time with friends. Perhaps another way to describe this tension is the negotiation between the two modes of Life, Becoming and Being. Becoming is what we do in our own time, working quietly and diligently towards a larger Project that we know brings a deep fulfillment. Being is when we set that project down and simply revel in the experience of Life.
I’ve always sort of frowned upon people who are always out and about, secretly categorizing them as the type of person who has not yet discovered the beauty of solitude and reflection. Or alternatively, I told myself that they likely had no project, and that they spend an inordinate amount of time with friends because they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves otherwise.
I still think this opinion is more or less valid, but I temper it slightly. In the last year, I feel like I have been applying this opinion with a bit too much enthusiasm, and as a result, I have missed out on many priceless opportunities for fellowship. Yes, I was making a lot of progress on my project and feeling very productive. Yet I was also beginning to feel burnt out and alienated in a sense.
I think it is critical to exercise discretion. Sometimes, the loneliness is your body’s way of telling you to get out there and enjoy some leisure and repose. Other times, the loneliness is indeed something you must lightly push away in favor of some quiet time and working towards your mission. There is a certain degree of skill necessary to balancing Becoming, often requiring alone time, and Being, frequently taking place with friends - which I think comes slowly with time and experience. I note that the ideal ratio of ‘time alone’ to time with friends varies for everyone.
I first started thinking about how I might have forgotten this necessary balance when I came across an essay written by Raymond Williams called “Individuals and Societies.”
Williams discusses how the etymological root of “individual” means “inseparable.” This was quite surprising as these two words are to the modern English speaker, obviously quite antithetical. We generally equate the word “individual” with “something that stands apart independently.”
I realized that in some regards, modern society and the modern definition of the individual are distortions.
The past is a very strange place and we must be wary of falsely constructing some ideal past,“a golden age.” But that being said, social critics of a variety of backgrounds have speculated that rampant individualism is indeed recent, with more communal and more happier societies having existed in the past.
Perhaps in these premodern societies, a single human was not considered to be the fundamental unit. The earlier philosophers did not begin with the single unit and then refer to a large group of these units as an abstract entity called Society.
Instead, Society was the basic fundamental unit - a complex, metaphysical entity - from which the abstract category of a single human could be derived and referred to as the “individual.” Intrinsic to the original definition of the “individual” is this idea that it cannot stand alone, and that it can only be understood in relation to a larger group.
These two contrasting paradigms have profound implications for how one lives Life and makes meaning of one’s emotions.
Under the first, which conceives of the individual as the fundamental unit and society as just an abstraction, “loneliness” is a weakness. It hints at an inability of the individual to master himself. The individual flees from his anxiety and seeks comfort in distraction.
Under the second, which conceives of Society as the fundamental unit and the individual as an appendage, “loneliness” is poetically human, a beautiful testament to our metaphysical interconnectedness. A fit of loneliness is the vibrations of the silver threads of life that can be perceived only in the fourth dimension. When we stray too far from our community, these threads strain and signal us to reconnect. Though loneliness might be experienced as a private, atomic emotion - just the random occurrence of a specific configuration of neurotransmitters floating within the brain - we wisely understand that it is the manifestation of our firm, immaterial ties to that larger, magnificent organism called Society.