In 1946, Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl published a book which drastically altered the course of psychotherapy; he titled it Man’s Search For Meaning, and in it he presented a case for including the establishment of a meaning of life in one’s clinical work with patients. Frankl argued that having a sense of purpose was integral to well-being, stating that man needed meaning in order to be psychologically healthy, and in order to continue living. Several years later, Rollo May, another existential psychiatrist, published a book titled Man’s Search For Himself, in which he chronicled the daily life of the average man, surmising that his only period of joy arrived in the brief moment of conversation with his love, which was his one, and only, moment of pure intimacy.
What made, and continues to make, May’s book so relevant is his understanding of loneliness and man’s isolation from himself, but also from the world around him. In his survey, May bore witness to a double isolation, leading to an almost unbearable sense of vacuity, for which our culture conveniently provides a plethora of unhealthy remedies, from reality television to narcotics; we’ve, essentially, created ways to numb ourselves out in a multitude of forms. In a predominately unhappy life, missing are one’s meaning and their core sense of self, but so is intimacy; and hence, I think that there ought to be a third installation in this series that wasn’t meant to be a series, a book dealing with the worst epidemic in our lifetime: loneliness.
NPR recently conducted a series on loneliness, focusing on several forms of the extensive research that’s been done on the subject, which explored the affects of a sense of social isolation on individuals of nearly all age groups; the results were stunning. It was discovered that the people who felt most alone, and most isolated, were millennials and the individuals that comprise Generation Z; the study found that the younger you were, the more likely you were to feel lonely. For the purpose of clarity, the sense of isolation and social isolation are different concepts, as one can feel alone while being in a group with others; and conversely, one can be socially isolated without feeling lonely. Personally, I’ve experienced loneliness in company many times, and the scary part is how common my experience is, especially among those in my age group.
Recently, in my attempts to branch out and form new friend groups, I became involved with several organizations, some were social, while others were political and professional; and, the main common theme among them was shallowness. No matter where I went, it seemed, I was faced with discourse on people’s favorite travel destinations, or their favorite foods: intimacy, that quality so necessary for a sense of connection and, subsequent, emotional well-being, was missing. Regardless of which group I entered, and no matter which part of town I visited, it was all the same; no one ever said anything of any significance. So, there I was, feeling isolated and alone, while yearning for a feature of life that seemed to have disappeared with the sands of time, an apparent relic of years past that my generation was clearly not entitled to.
But, after reading through the literature, I feel comforted in knowing that I’m not alone; I feel connected by our disconnection, yet continue to hope for a radical change. We’ve managed to create a culture of hallowed out individuals seeking companionship through emptiness, while remaining in denial of our flawed logic and our sheer terror of true connection. To connect is to be open, and to be open is to be known; but, nothing in this world frightens us more than revelation. So, here we are, isolated and alone, if not in our bodies, then most certainly in our hearts. In his book, Rollo May profoundly remarked, “The “stuffed men” are bound to become more lonely no matter how much they “lean together”; for hollow people do not have a base from which to learn to love.” And that seems to be our collective destiny, at least until we overcome our collective fear of being known.