Few will fail to see themselves somewhere in this penetrating study of what may be the commonest and least examined social problem of our times
Loneliness, according to the psychiatrists, is born with each and every one of us at the moment when we are thrust into the cold world from the warm comfort of the womb. It threatens man from the cradle to the grave. Sometimes constructive, more often destructive, it may be a step on the road to mental illness. From loneliness spring other human vagaries like alcoholism, prostitution, compulsive food addiction, homosexual relationships and overaggressive behavior. It's been called the greatest single cause of suicide, but there exist forms of loneliness so extreme that their despairing victims are even beyond taking their own lives.
Considering its universal nature, comparatively little is known about loneliness beyond its psychiatric definition as “a significant emotional experience with far-reaching psychopathological ramifications.” Textbooks seldom mention it except as an adjunct of some other mental disorder, like schizophrenia.
Loneliness may appear as solitude, a blessed thing from which emerge rest and a renewal of life—or as creative loneliness, which spawns great works of art — or (as men know it in prisons and concentration camps) as empty terrifying isolation.
Strange as it may seem we are lonelier to-
day than our grandfathers were. This, sociologists tell us, is because of our “cultural loneliness” — a twentieth-century phenomenon which engulfs us as the result of the industrial revolution. Crowded into small quarters in big cities, surrounded by thousands of strangers, offered so much superficial entertainment, we suffer a loneliness of restless dissatisfaction, boredom, a feeling that we’re missing something that other people have.
A natural victim of this kind of loneliness is the so-called white-collar girl with no man in her life, who spends seven hours a day in front of her typewriter in an office filled with other women and comes home to nothing in the evening. "Sad. Terribly, terribly sad!” says Dr. Karl Stern, a Montreal psychiatrist and author, when he thinks of the thousands of young women to whom life must appear meaningless and drab.
Out of their loneliness, many girls drift into tragic situations. A surprisingly large number of unmarried mothers are lonely immature people who mistook sex for love. Dr. Hilda Bruch, an American doctor who has devoted her life to the study of obesity, recognizes loneliness as a major cause of compulsive eating, a defense manoeuvre whereby some lonely people hope
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Roy Thomson, the millionaire boss of a vast newspaper empire, says: “It's lonely up here at the top”
to “get even" with the rest of the world.
In Toronto. Phyllis Haslam. director of the Elizabeth Fry Society, an organization for the rehabilitation of young women just out of prison, has discovered that a great many girls turn to alcohol or drugs or promiscuity out of a feeling of rejection and loneliness.
Middle-aged couples whose children have grown up and left home often find themselves suddenly plunged into loneliness. When Armand Georges, a young actor lonely after his own marriage had broken up, recently undertook a one-man crusade against loneliness in the British Isles, he got forty thousand letters from lonely men and women, most of them in the middle-age bracket. He suggested that conversation on trains and buses should be encouraged “so that any lonely or withdrawn person would have a chance to express views on topics of the day." and that people with comfortable homes should put big cards in their front windows inviting lonely strangers to step in and visit them between the hours of 7 and 8 p.m.
A more practical suggestion might be that all of us develop some outside interests in our early years that will sustain us when we re older and need them.
Tied in with the loneliness of middle age is the depression and hysteria that often descends upon a woman at the time of her menopause when she realizes inevitably that she is losing her looks, her figure, her girlish allure, and — most traumatizing of all — her ability to bear children. Similarly, men at the climacteric lend to become depressed. Some, in desperation, test their diminishing sexual powers by what's come to be called “one last fling." When death removes one partner in a successful and happy marriage, loneliness steps in again.
Some, cheerful and self-sufficient by nature, take the loneliness of old age in their stride. Others echo the words of the elderly pensioner who complained. "When nobody wants you or needs you any more, how can you help being lonely?"
Not only the physically and mentally handicapped, but the beautiful, the successful. the rich and the clever often know the pangs of loneliness. Dime-store heiress Barbara Hutton, after six husbands, is reputedly one of the loneliest women on the face of the earth, and millionaire Roy Thomson, who recently added Lord Kemsley's newspapers to his already vast publishing empire, says mournfully, "It's pretty lonely up here at the top."
It seems that man is born with a need for contact and tenderness. If he is removed from his fellow men. his mind may become confused and deranged.
Solitary seafarers adrift on the ocean develop hallucinations and hear voices. People in prisons and concentration camps must struggle to maintain their perspective. Christopher Burney, who was in a German prison for eighteen months during World War II. relates in his book. Solitary Confinement, how he systematically exercised, sang songs, whistled, manicured his nails with a splinter, figured out arithmetic problems, and nurtured a small snail in his cell. ("It was company of a sort, an emissary from the world of real life.") When he was finally released he was afraid to
speak for fear his first words would prove him mad.
Dr. Alistair MacLeod, a Montreal psychiatrist on the staff of the Mental Hygiene Institute, says that people need some channel of communication with other people to build up their emotional reserves.
Dr. Karl Stern believes that the problem of human creativity is the real problem of loneliness: that we would be better off and less lonely making music than listening to it; playing a game instead of watching other people play it. He says, too. that many people manoeuvre themselves into a position of isolation and then taste the experience of loneliness. If they could realize it was of their own seeking, the next step would be to discover why, and overcome it.
When a person reaches the extreme stage of loneliness the worst thing that can happen to him is to be pushed into group activity. He is in such a position that, even if nourishment is offered to him. he is unable to swallow it. His depression may be lifted by drugs, but if the same circumstances prevail as before he may slip back into a deeper depression.
This final state of human isolation, so destructive and disintegrating that it renders its victims emotionally paralyzed, is what the German psychiatrist Dr. Frieda Fromm - Reichmann calls "real loneliness.”
Dr. Fromm-Reiehmann's intense interest in loneliness began when one of her patients, a young woman in the grip of catatonic schizophrenia, suddenly broke through years of silence when asked how miserable she felt. In a recent issue of the medical journal. Psychiatry, the doctor relates how the girl slowly raised her
hand with her thumb lifted and the other four fingers bent out of sight. She continues: "I interpreted the signal with, 'That lonely?' in a sympathetic tone of voice, and at this the girl’s facial expression loosened up as though in great relief and gratitude and her fingers opened. Then she began to tell me about herself by means of her fingers, and she asked me by gestures to respond in kind. We continued with this finger conversation for one or two weeks, and gradually her anxious tension began to decrease. After a while she emerged altogether from her loneliness."
Dr. Fromm-Reichmann describes this kind of loneliness as desperate, drastic, crippling, uncanny and akin to panic. People in its grip are beyond feeling sorry for themselves. They are set apart by their conviction that no one else has ever experienced what they are experiencing. One girl who had climbed out of the abyss told her, "I don't know why people think of*hell as a place of heat and burning fires. Hell is if you are frozen in isolation into a block of ice. That is where I have been."
Many psychologists are convinced that the seeds of extreme loneliness are sown in infancy.
Dr. John Bowlby, a consultant in mental health to the World Health Organization, suggests that just as a baby may be born blind or deaf if its mother contracts German measles between the sixth and tenth w'eeks of pregnancy (at which time the baby's ears and eyes are just beginning to form), so, if it is emotionally deprived during its early years, when its mental life is in process of formation, it may develop deep and long-lasting ill effects, possibly even mental illness.
Babies in understaffed institutions, who get little attention, fail to gain weight, sleep badly, have little initiative, are seldom known to "coo" in sensual comfort. Babies who have had a happy and dependent relationship with their mothers during the first few months of life, and then lose them suddenly, are particularly vulnerable. If the separation continues without a satisfactory "mother substitute." they may show signs of depression and retarded development. Affection, from wherever it comes, is now refused. A writer for radio, tape-recording an afternoon in an institution for young children, watched a nurse reach out to caress a little girl and was startled to hear the child, utterly distraught, scream. “Don't love me! Don't touch me! Leave me alone!"
A Children's Aid Society caseworker, faced with the task of removing neglected children from bad homes, says, "To almost every child, loss of his parents is like surgery. Some never forgive and never recover. Even if they were unloved and abused at home, they build up a fantasy world in which their parents are wonderful, godlike creatures and we are the big bad kidnapers who took them away."
Some lonely children seem at first glance anything but lonely. It takes time to discover that they have no real feelings. no interest in anybody except themselves. no capacity for love and not much concentration. People who adopt children of this sort from institutions complain that they just don't have the emotional responses of the normal child.
One adoptive father, referring to a child who has been in his home for two years, says, "You just can't get to that girl! She chatters, but it's all on the surface. She kisses you. but you can tell it doesn't mean anything to her." His wife adds, "I swear I don't know her any more today than the day she came."
Psychologists say that it's this inability to get close to people which makes the lonely child a still lonelier adult.
They point out that even for the normal child there are lonely experiences, like the first day at school, the first night sleeping away from home, the first summer at camp. Adolescence is a time of extraordinary loneliness. Marrying and moving away from home is a lonely undertaking for many young men and women. Parents who give their children love and trust are building up their inner security and making it possible for them to "relate" to other people when they grow up. The child who has no opportunity to form a loving relationship in childhood may find it difficult, even impossible. to do so later on and will turn into a lonely, shut-in person who can't stand being with people.
Lonely souls of this sort have a neurotic need to put distance between themselves and everybody else. They don't want to compete, or co-operate, or even fight. They rebuff all overtures of friendship because they're too threatening. "If I don't let anything come near me. I can't be hurt," they reason.
Lonely people like this may not be incapacitated enough to be in an institution but in the eyes of psychiatrists, they're sick.
One young woman from a broken home, who had turned to psychoanalysis.
related a typical dream of loneliness to her doctor;
She was walking at night on a long, long road, bound for nowhere. It was icy cold and snow fell. She was tired. She could barely stand. Suddenly a carriage drew up behind her, and its occupants, a young man and an older man, called out and offered her a ride. It was warm inside the carriage, but she waved it on, and soon it passed her and vanished in the distance. She continued to waik wearily in the snow.
A person suffering from this kind of extreme loneliness is unable —in life as in the young woman's dream — to accept the help that is offered to her.
Sometimes a child’s feet are set on the path to loneliness by a family rule that “we don’t discuss our problems.’’ Violet Munns, director of casework for the Toronto Neighborhood Workers Association, an organization with thirty - one caseworkers who deal with personal and family problems, recalls an attractive woman who approached her not long ago in a last-minute effort to prevent her husband from divorcing her. She didn’t want a divorce, but she suggested that if anyone were to blame, it was her husband: he didn’t understand her. didn’t help her. wasn't interested in her problems. As the interviews continued, it became evident that the woman did indeed
have many problems, but her husband knew nothing of them because she hadn’t confided in him. She had grown up in a family that prized Spartan silence and private suffering. A relationship like marriage, which demands give and take, was strange and frightening. She wanted help, but she was unable to ask for it. Only after her own self-reliance was built up could she accept a new. more trusting relationship with her husband. Eventually the marriage was saved.
Not everybody's story ends on such a happy note. Eor every man and woman who knocks on the door of a social agency and says, “Help me. I’m lonely,” there are thousands walking the streets in silence. They seem to feel loneliness has something shameful about it.
Dr. Stern, the Montreal psychiatrist, finds a sad loneliness characteristic of a group he calls “the culturally displaced” — those elderly eccentrics who make the mistake of identifying with a role, instead of relating to other people. Thus the daughter of a magistrate, now a dowager of seventy with purple hair and lorgnette, continues to think of herself as “the judge’s little girl." although times have changed, social values have altered and the judge is long since dead.
Another psychiatrist. Dr. Gregory Zilboorg, has declared that some lonely people, far from being rejected in child-
hood, were overloved and overvalued by their doting parents, who gave them the narcissistic notion that they were the centre of the universe. Growing up, they encounter a world which refuses to accept this glorified picture. Result: they draw back with the cold comfort that nobody understands them.
Not all loneliness is destructive. Out of man's solitude, his aloneness, have come great philosophies, great religions, great works of art. Quakers base their form of worship on collective silence. Many religious people find not only peace but excitement in the silence of their own thoughts, like Old Henry Welby, an English recluse of the sixteenth century, who withdrew from society at the age of forty, and of whom it is written:
“There was for him no greater recreation
Than fasting, praying, reading, meditation.”
Artists and writers, who must search their own loneliness for the stuff of creation. have probably come closest to expressing the beauties and terrors of man's isolated state. The books of the Old Testament, especially Job and Ecclesiastes. are monuments to human loneliness. Thomas Wolfe, the great American novelist, hailed loneliness as, “Dark face . . .
stern friend . . . blood brother to Proud Death.”
Even for those of us who are not poets, some solitude is good, for sanity if not for our soul’s sake.
In his searching analysis, The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman suggests that far too many of us are what he calls “other directed,” moved chiefly by a desire to win the approval of other people. We conform to their values, make the right amount of money, live in the right kind of house, belong to the right clubs and bring up our children with the “right” values (largely materialistic).
Why, conforming as we do. are we still lonely? Possibly because our desire to move with the crowd is based on fear. It is a fearful world w'e live in, and the blow that ends it may fall any minute. When? And from where? Hiding in the crow'd, perhaps we may escape. At least we can share our fear. So we reason.
What can we do about loneliness? A highly respected Canadian doctor who died last year suggested one answer. In her book, A Woman Doctor Looks at Love and Life, Marion Hilliard declared: “Faith is the antidote for wretchedness and loneliness, the only one. With faith comes the ability to love, the greatest treasure of them all. If you are able to love, you will be loved, but you must give without being afraid ...” -fa