How to Overcome Loneliness |

4 min read

Two quotes making the rounds on social media present starkly different views of life. The first, by journalist Hunter S. Thompson, says, “We are all alone, born alone, die alone … and we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way.” Hunter concludes, “This is what makes your self-respect so important, and I don’t see how you can respect yourself if you must look in the hearts and minds of others for your happiness.”

The second quote is from theologian and poet Thomas Merton. While Merton doesn’t address aloneness or happiness, both are implied in his comment, “What we are asked to do is love [others], and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

The Thompson’s approach strikes me as wrongheaded, while Merton’s advice may be a stretch too far.

First, Thomson: he is factually wrong. We aren’t born alone but from the body of another and in the presence of others who care for us. Without others, as infants we wouldn’t receive food or shelter. As children, we wouldn’t learn the skills of survival or have access to the material advances which make life something more than short and brutish. There is no way to understand humankind other than as first and foremost social beings.

By contrast, Merton’s urging is laudable—to love others is a worthy goal. It isn’t merely that we are in the company of others, which Thompson concedes he has had, but the nature of that relationship that transcends loneliness. But there is a problem with Merton, as well, and that is that love cannot be summoned up at will. Still, we can be kind, considerate, thoughtful, and generous; we can show our care for others by acting fairly and justly. We can choose to be cooperative and be helpful. These behaviors are within our power. And perhaps from that love may follow.

Unlike Merton’s hopeful view, Thompson’s is jaundiced. It is hardly a recipe to follow for human flourishing. It isn’t a model to emulate but a cautionary tale of a sad life. Loneliness lurks behind Thompson’s implicit philosophy of individualism, a way of living that it is widely held but deeply destructive. I have written about the problems with individualism several times, most recently here.

Merton’s goal of universal love may be obtainable only by a person devoted to the religious life, as was Merton, a Trappist monk. Others live in the murky world of competing desires and values, internal and external stresses, partial successes and failures, and limited abilities. The model of sainthood isn’t especially useful to those who live a secular and flawed life.

Hunter and Merton present contrasting philosophies of life, one sour, the other optimistic. Which one gets us closer to a life of meaning, fulfillment and flourishing?

For some, Thompson accurately reflects their own experiences and feelings of being alone. For others who accept it as a description of life in general, it may be become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a prediction that becomes true because of the influence our expectations have on seeing what we want to see.

If you believe that aloneness is inherent in the human condition, as Thompson writes, then you may well find that loneliness is an accurate description of life. Conversely, if you switch your frame of reference and behave in caring and just ways, as Merton encourages, then the possibility of experiencing the joys of living opens up. Nothing is guaranteed, but Merton does make a happy life more likely than does Thompson.

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