An Existential View Of Loneliness

From an essay by Michele Carter, "Abiding Loneliness: An Existential Perspective," published by the Park Ridge Center for Health, Faith, and Ethics in Illinois.

"Many writers in the Western tradition portray...[the] existential form of loneliness as an unavoidable condition of our humanity. It resides in the innermost being of the self, expanding as each individual becomes aware of and confronts the ultimate experiences of life: change, upheaval, tragedy, joy, the passage of time, and death. Loneliness in this sense is not the same as suffering the loss of a loved one, or a perceived lack of a sense of wholeness or integrity. Further, it is not the unhealthy psychological defense against the threat of being alone, especially if being alone means we must confront the critical questions of life and death. Rather, existential loneliness is a way of being in the world, a way of grasping for and confronting one's own subjective truth. It is the experience of discovering one's own questions regarding human existence, and of confronting the sheer contingencies of the human condition. From an existential perspective, the lonely individual seeks to grasp some meaning in the face of life's impermanence, the angoisse of human freedom, and the inevitability of death. In his beautiful and tragic essay 'God's Lonely Man,' novelist Thomas Wolfe connects the intense loneliness of his own life to this universal aspect of humanity. He writes:

The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people -- not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.

"For Wolfe, the experience of loneliness is neither strange nor curious, but 'inevitable and right' because it is part of the human heart. Just as the experience of joy is heightened by sorrow, loneliness, 'haunted always with the certainty of death,' makes life precious. Loneliness and death are thus inescapable facets of human existence, each ontologically necessary for a coherent human life.

"Loneliness is not the experience of what one lacks, but rather the experience of what one is. In a culture deeply entrenched in the rhetoric of autonomy and rights, the song of God's lonely man so often goes unvoiced and unheeded. It is ironic how much of our freedom we expend on power -- on conquering death, disease, and decay, all the while concealing from each other our carefully buried loneliness, which if shared, would deepen our understanding of each other."


Paul Tillich, in The Courage To Be, devotes many chapters to the issue of aloneness and existential anxiety. He offers this passage from one of Nietzsche's works:

Have ye courage, O my brethren?...He hath heart who knoweth fear but vanquisheth it; who seeth the abyss, but with pride. He who seeth the abyss but with eagle's eyes, -- he who with eagle's talons graspeth the abyss: he hath courage. (emphasis in original)

Tillich writes, "These words reveal the other side of Nietzsche, that in him which makes him an Existentialist, the courage to look into the abyss of nonbeing in the complete loneliness of him who accepts the message that 'God is dead.'"

Loneliness, on this view, is an experience to be welcomed rather than banished, for it brings us face to face with two of life's most important questions: What is life really all about, and how should I use my freedom to define myself? The line about God "being dead" is another way of saying that all the pressure and responsibility for leading a meaningful life lie squarely on our shoulders. We, not God, decide what we become. We and we alone are the authors and governors of our moral life. This is what the existentialists mean when they say that existence precedes essence; it is this realization, too, that is the most frightening of all.

Loneliness brings us to the abyss Nietzsche describes, and forces us to make a decision. The temptation to eradicate unpleasant subjectivity is irresistible for perhaps most people, and they seek out any experience that will enable them to forget about it. There is always the sense of belonging that membership in a group can provide. There is an existential safety in living a "relevant" life, being connected to the power center of one's society, having a respectable job, a family, a few material comforts. This path is not in and of itself false: that would depend on the person. Many find meaning and fulfillment in just such a life. But that path may also be chosen as a result of seeing one's own freedom and individuality as a threat: some would rather turn away from a life that holds out the hope of affirmation and creativity than endure the existential insecurity that it requires.

There are those individuals, however, who peer into the abyss and do not cower. We think of Gautama who gave up an opulent life and family in his late twenties to travel the world alone in search of meaning. Or Thoreau who retreated to the woods for a few years so that he might gain a decent perspective upon the world. Or to any number of fictional characters: for instance, Lester Burnham in the movie American Beauty, who comes to grips with the fact that he has spent his adult life in an emotional and moral coma, and who chases what bits of meaning and beauty are still available to him in acts of rebelliousness. Or, still yet, to Christopher Reeve, who knew that the odds of returning to a normal and happy life were slim to nil, but who resolved to turn an awful tragedy into a quest to ferret out scientific solutions to such debilitating diseases as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

So loneliness, on this reading, isn't something to be shunned or afraid of: it is, rather, a possible catalyst for a more purposeful and engaging life, and an avenue for heightened self-awareness.

Further Reading

"Philosophy And Depression"