On loneliness

One sunny day, Franny and I were walking along a tree covered boulevard. The air was crisp; our steps were too.  We were chatting happily, noting how fortunate we were to have lived this long and this well.  Yet I was lonely.  I thought to tell her, and I knew that she would smile and wonder what she could do to help.  But I knew that even her most compassionate efforts wouldn’t make things appreciably better.  It might placate but never completely banish the ache.  She loves me. We are married for forty years.  We have shared children and grandchildren, laughs and hard times.  We are very close.  But I still felt incomplete.

When I was young I began to seek a cure for this loneliness.  First, I sought love.  I was sure that having a girlfriend would do the trick.  Each of my early girlfriends were lovely and loving.  They helped but not completely.  When there was no strong relationship, I would prowl the streets of Cambridge, searching, searching, and feeling empty as I searched.  Then I married, more than once, and found a great love but it was not enough.

So I turned to the spiritual life, studying Buddhism and Sufism, and living in a Sufi commune, which was lively and full of company.  I found solace in the idea that loneliness, like other feelings, was a construct of mine—just a thought—that would flow by, like a river, if I didn’t get too nervous about it.  I learned to meditate and to observe this river of feelings; when I did, the loneliness did, indeed, flow by.  But not so much at night, when I was alone on the river.  I hoped that, with discipline and tenacity, I would I would eventually lift myself above all the petty human feelings that oppress me: envy, for example, hurt and defensiveness.  I loved William Butler’s image of wise old men, hoping it mirrored my own journey:

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

But I never climbed to the top of that spiritual mountain, never freed myself from the slings and arrows, and, eventually, the image grew cold in my mind, leaving me lonely still.  Much as I tried to transform loneliness into solitude and peace, I succeeded only some of the time.  I came to accept the truth of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “We live as we dream—alone…”

Now seventy-four, I know that I will never fully lose that ache, and I know that I am not alone.  Though I have rarely discussed my loneliness with others, I believe that almost everyone shares this condition.  It is a part of the human condition.  Philosophers have noted it over the millennia.  I remember, especially, the despair of the Existentialists, Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, who I read avidly in my youth.  I loved Camus best, particularly his advice: carry on in spite of the pain because it is the only thing we human beings can do.  I have carried on.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are many times with Franny, with my family and friends when I lose myself in play and love.  But I also accept that old philosophical saw that we are ultimately alone, ultimately encapsulated in our individual bodies.  The older I get, the more this simple truth becomes just that: a simple truth.  There is nothing to fight.  I live with it as I might an old friend.  When it comes to consciousness, I greet it with some affection.  “I see that you have come to visit me tonight.  Rest.  Stay a while.”

This is the great value of aging: that you let go of the idea that you can ‘cure’ everything, that you can make yourself better and better, if only you work at it; that you accept your limitations, including your singularity and your loneliness.  And that brings rest.

14 thoughts on “On loneliness”

  1. This really resonates. I never thought of it as loneliness until the past few years but when I said it, I knew it had been a part of me forever. And always will be. Knowing that doesn’t give me comfort but at least I’m not surprised or blindsided by it. So much to discuss on this. It might help us feel less lonely (lol) !!!


  2. On Loneliness..

    My therapist asked if I missed Bob…My response was that I had been missing him for a very long time…Her next question was how lonely was I…Then I realized that for the last twenty years how lonely I had been..How I had adjusted to my husband’s failing health and went into survival mode…a great revelation… a great despair…a greater beginning to my recovery…accepting that being lonely is OK…not looking at it as a negative but a good place to rest at the end of a wonderful journey…discovering my own resilience…so I embrace the solitude…walk the beach…revel in the knowledge of having made a difference…accept the inevitable…

    Love the posts…

    Margaret >


  3. That was an excellent article. It always has made me wonder how I could be with people I love but feel so lonely. If it is only loneliness, I think one could adjust to it and accept it, but when loneliness turns in to depression, which it does for me, it is not just a gentle winding river.


  4. Barry,

    What an eloquent piece on loneliness. I agree with some people who have left comments that there are loneliness has different types. Sometimes I feel lonely because I miss my deceased husband. Sometimes I feel lonely in a room full of people. At times, loneliness can be depressing and other times, it is part of life. I think right now I feel lonely because of how disconnected the world seems as evidenced by shootings, terrorism, war, hate, and discrimination. I feel disconnected from my fellow human being right now because I don’t know if the people walking down the street see me as part of an “us” or part of a “them”. The caring of friends and family are important and I am grateful for these people in my life. However, I also need to feel like I am part of a greater human community and due to the current climate in our nation and the world, I am very lonely.



  5. Dear Barry,

    This piece on “Loneliness” felt more personal than some, and evoked my sympathy… I wonder, though, whether the more important topic is not everyone’s being ultimately (existentially) “alone” (yes, of course we are), but rather how retirement shears us away from many of the sustaining relational world involvements we’ve dedicated so much of ourselves to for so many years… and leaves us wondering “what next?”… and feeling more deeply that ultimate sense of isolation… leading to a solitary death… For sure, your last twenty years have not seemed to me, who’s seen you fairly regularly, a series of theme and variations on “being alone,” but rather a series of theme and variations on being useful, being appreciated, being busy, creating institutions, and being mired happily in an ever-extending web of warm relationships… which may prove to be a “bulwark” or a “defense” against loneliness… but which to me are the heart of life… being with others in meaningful ways… And now, much of this has been voluntarily (!) given up… ay, ay, ay… here emerges, now appears the inevitable loneliness… My own experience is, I’m as much “alone” now as I’ve always been… not much has changed “existentially”… but what’s changed is, my sense in retirement of being less “Special.” and more of being a part of the human race, of being a part of like-minded groups–not necessarily the Leader, mind you–but one of the accepted, welcomed, appreciated, and (yes) loved folks in the pack… maybe this is something you’re trying to establish with your blogosphere… a new, supportive community… and my guess is, ultimately, like most of us who have swapped out of our work-identity, you too will find a sense of belonging, purpose, warmth and grace by being… just Barry (!)… the person we’ve always loved and appreciated for who you are… your achievements, in this sense, have little to do with our affection… you’re one of us, the ever-cresting cohort of our generation’s warriors… moving along, holding hands, as it were… holding hands and sharing hearts…



  6. I remember feeling so surprised being newly married and very much in love and very lonely….. Sometimes being with others makes you realize your aloneness….. We come alone – we go alone.


  7. I’ve read this three times (so far), Barry. It’s beautiful and timely for me. Thank you for opening this conversation.


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