Feb 20, 2023

Loneliness: The Recently Revived Explanation for Everything

Flying solo has its rewards but it’s not quite like soaring

By Ed Goldman

Loneliness, a human condition as old as humans—and probably, countless other species—is emerging as the Mental Health Conundrum of the Year.

It’s recently been cited as the Number 1 cause of teen angst, executive burnout, divorce, and the heartbreak of various dermal outbreaks (psoriasis, eczema, acne, shingles, maybe even Spanish tiles).

Edgy Cartoon

During the depths of COVID, Osborn patiently listens to another dumb column idea. Photo by Cynthia Larsen.

But loneliness is hardly new. It’s been around forever. 

For example, if you subscribe to the Old Testament (now running a two-for-one special if you renew this month!), some interpretations advance the notion that God created humankind because He was lonely. This is understandable because from everything I’ve read, neither black holes nor quarks can be expected to hold up their end of a conversation, even if alcohol is introduced. 

More tellingly, loneliness may be why God created Eve. While ostensibly it was in the hope that she and Adam would then mouse around and make babies, it may also have been to keep Adam from feeling blue while loafing around on Sabbath night. Don’t forget, this was before Facebook, porn streaming, journaling, scrapbooking and soap-carving were invented.

I really shouldn’t joke about this because loneliness—in myself but mainly in others—has inspired and informed my life’s work. This may be all the more reason to joke about it, natch. But I digress.

An interviewer for Writers Digest once asked me why I write what I’ve been writing for more than half a century. After a moment of causing the worst fear of radio and TV hosts—a few seconds of the dreaded “dead air”—I blurted out a cliché that I nevertheless believed then and which continues to be my professional mantra: I write what I write so someone, somewhere, can read my alternately disjointed and pointed commentaries and feel free to think, “I am not alone.”

I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I just made a mountain out of mountebankery—or put another way, that I’m making ethereal-lofty a premise which at its best is earthbound-iffy. But consider how many times in your life, sometimes within just a day or even hour, you feel a sense of isolation, of not really belonging to the rabble in the next room, to the solitary drivers in those other cars or to the men and women window-shopping alone in that soul-robbing mall. 

Sometimes, the least pleasant experiences in our lives can provide a weird sense of connectedness: sitting in a doctor’s waiting room with others who are just as anxious and impatient; stumbling around to see which line you’re supposed to be standing in, per your airline’s “open-seating-but-call-in-advance-to-reserve-a-slot-to-board” assignment; trying to figure out how to do self-checkout at a grocery store and wondering why, along with everyone else doing it, you’re not getting a discount for this; and attending a funeral or its painfully lighthearted alternative, a “celebration of life,” when the only person you’d like to celebrate a life with won’t be joining you anytime soon. In each case, you take some comfort in knowing that everyone else may be feeling just as lonely.

The latest onslaught of loneliness is often attributed to the COVID-19 epidemic and we’re being told that there’s been no age discrimination. It’s affected youngsters and teens forced to stay home and “distance-learn,” office workers forced to convert their dinette sets to desks and, for those hideous Zoom calls, their bedrooms to boardrooms. In each case, the helpless shut-ins were denied human contact; and even when that contact had sometimes proved aggravating, at least it reminded them they weren’t flying solo through the cosmos.

I’ve worked and lived alone for some time and can report honestly (if regretfully) that I sometimes felt lonelier when someone else lived in my digs with me. There were some human exceptions, natch, but the best roomie I ever had was Osborn the Magnificent, my tabby who died a year ago at the age of 19. Other than at mealtimes, which I rarely forgot, he made no demands on me, kept his own counsel if he didn’t approve of the company I kept and reacted to everything I wrote and read aloud to him with the same, sometimes reassuring, stolidity.

I suppose one could also call that stolidity apathy, indifference or boredom. But for some reason, he sat still and listened whenever I read to him. And for those precious few moments in our life together, I don’t think either of us was lonely.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).