To be a modern human is to contend with loneliness.
While this insight has been with us for decades or even centuries, it’s only recently that a body of research around the causes of loneliness, as well as its effects and its cures, has started to catch the public imagination.
Folks like Kafka and Camus seemed to assume, in the previous century, that loneliness was simply fundamental, part of the warp and weft of human existence. Today, though, researchers have begun to argue that loneliness is no more basic to human existence than tuberculosis–that, in fact, loneliness is a medical condition that can be prevented and cured.
The January issue of Scientific American has an article on loneliness that really spoke to me, perhaps because I was so lonely for so much of my youth. The author, Francine Russo, argues that in much the same way that the disease of consumption was medicalized and clinicalized into tuberculosis, we may be in the process of reconceiving loneliness as a treatable and preventable disease rather than a central reality of the human condition. For an artist like John Keats in the early 19th century, tuberculosis and loneliness were existential threats that he spent his life and work grappling with. Today, TB is (for many people in the developed world, anyway) something that one is vaccinated against.
But what vaccine is available for loneliness? Russo suggests cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a technique which has had deeply positive effects on my own life. And yet, in spite of my having experienced both chronic loneliness and CBT first-hand, I lacked the imagination to conceive of loneliness as a disease rather than a consequence of my very flawed character.
The other thing that dawned on me as I read the article was just how often I write about lonely characters in my stories. I just signed off on the galley prints for my latest story, “Potosí,” and realized that the main character spends a good deal of the story in utter solitude. Just like Miranda in “Full Fathom Five,” Epic in “Proteus,” and Sandra in “Lamp of the Body.” Stories with well-adjusted characters and lots of friends seem to be more rare with me.
As with all things Scientific American, the print article isn’t available online, but this closely related SciAm blog post is.