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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #97, 1/8/2008


By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Probably the most painful human experience, apart from physical pain itself, is loneliness.

For social animals like us, the worst feeling in the world is to be trapped on a desert island with no one who cares about us, interacts with us and witnesses what we are doing. Sure, we might find it relaxing for a few days, as a break from the engulfment we often feel in the company of others, but after a while any island is going to feel like hell.

We need to be acknowledged and responded to because it is a fundamental source of our meaning. Babies and young children need others to interact with to form their personalities, and one of the most terrifying things to them is to be left alone. Without this interaction, even in the presence of food and physical protection, they will simply die.

Adults also need interaction with others, even if they can get along longer without it. Loneliness is the absence of meaningful interaction when you want it, and over time it can knaw away at you, either stealing the life from you or driving you to do some desperate things.

The attempt to avoid loneliness is one of the great motivators of human behavior, both functional and dysfunctional. When you seek sensations, you are trying to drive away loneliness. You are hoping for some acknowledgement from the world that you exist. This quest is not always successful, in that the things we do to try to escape loneliness sometimes only make it worse, but loneliness is still the driving force.

The sex drive is a mask for loneliness. Yes, humans are drawn to mate by hormonal responses and a desire for orgasm, but the main thing that colors sex is the feeling that this act is going to relieve ones inner emptiness.

When a man engages a prostitute, he can't realistically expect a meaningful relationship, but at a hidden emotional level he is actually hoping for one. Even a momentary paid contact with another person feels better than no contact at all—or at least it promises to feel better when the man is making his plans. This is why the man needs a live prostitute and isn't satisfied with, say, pornography or a blow-up doll. In his imagination at least, the prostitute promises to acknowledge him and love him for who he is.

It is crazy to think this way, but loneliness makes people do crazy things. They'll grasp at any chance, no matter how unlikely, to try to relieve it. They will respond to late-night infomercials, falling for any far-fetched sales pitch to try to relieve their void. They will buy useless products and wear silly fashions that make them seem part of an interactive group. The fact that these efforts rarely work, except to occupy time, doesn't prevent people from trying.

The funny thing about loneliness is that it isn't really a function of your physical interaction with others. You can be surrounded by people—a big family, for example—and still be profoundly lonely. You can be married and involved in a peaceful, caring and outwardly successful partnership, and loneliness still haunts you.

Relationships can be some of the loneliest places in the world, as frightening as any desert island, because it's the quality of the interaction that matters, not its quantity. In fact, it's not even the actual quality of the relationship that determines loneliness but the perceived quality of it.

If you are raising a busy family and interacting with an attentive spouse, you can still feel lonely if your think these people aren't acknowledging you in ways you see as important. Many marriages disintegrate on these grounds, because there is nominal interaction but no perceived communication.

These needs, in fact, are often unfulfillable. Some people are dissatisfied with every relationship because their expectations are so high. They expect all of their loneliness to be resolved, all their voids filled up, when in fact loneliness is an unavoidable quality of existence that, if you are truly alive, will come back to haunt you again and again. Even in the best relationship in the world, you are still going to feel it occasionally.

Loneliness is one of the great human motivators, but that doesn't mean loneliness is solvable. You can find satisfying engagement for a while, but it doesn't exist in a steady state, and it can't be nailed down. It is a mistake to think you can wipe away loneliness by, say, getting married or joining a group. Instead, these things often assure your loneliness in the long run by reducing your ability to change.

Loneliness is the feeling you get when you aren't getting enough... something. What that something is is the big question. It's not sex; it's not sensory stimulation and it's not raw social interaction. When you are lonely, you are missing a certain quality of interaction that's inherently hard to pin down.

If you are living in a family with 16 siblings and you still feel lonely, it is because you feel that you are not being seen. What can erase this feeling? If someone took an interest in you, that might do it, but only for a while. Sooner or later, in any static relationship, the loneliness is going to return.

The only treatment for loneliness is movement -- not movement for the sake of movement, but the meaningful pursuit of goals.

You might be stranded on a desert island, but if you added a few people and had an important mission together, your loneliness wouldn't seem nearly so bad.

Reader Comments

“I've been lonley my entire life. When will it end?” —tapiwa 3/9/08 (rating=3)

“man, i seek info to avoid loneliness not the freaking meaning or definition of it.. i am well aware of it..” — 5/3/08 (rating=0)

“I like the fact that you give a treatment: movement (activity) and goals.” —mystic 5/25/08 (rating=4)

“I don't feel so lonely when I'm on a mission with others. You are right.” — 6/24/08 (rating=3)

“Wonderful article!! You are right, taking focus off self and moving toward a goal - focusing on others will ease the pain. And yes, reality it is, loneliness is a part of life! Thanx :)” —lonely mom 10/26/08 (rating=5)

“Truely, one of the best things I've ever read.” — 12/10/08 (rating=5)

“Loneliness can lead you to the spiritual realm so you be in tune to your soul. Don't run away from it like as if you can cut your soul from your being. It is beautiful, it can scare you and as long as you are alive and breathing, you will come in contact with it.” — 1/10/09 (rating=3)

“Interesting... very interesting... the only thing I didn't believe was that lonliness was an uncurable thing. Still, it was a good essay.” —Rukifellth 4/4/09 (rating=4)

“If only you led them to God..the ultimate satisfaction..” —loner not for long 5/17/09 (rating=4)

“Rings true to everything I feel” —t5rr 7/8/09 (rating=5)

“no examples from real people why /? but it was interesting to describe lonliness the way the writer did.” —karma greemhoop 1/10/10 (rating=3)

“the plain facts. I'm writing about loneliness, and this really helped me straighten my ideas and putting them together. thanks!” — 5/17/10 (rating=4)

“Bierce defines: alone - in bad company” — 8/27/10 (rating=3)

“This article offered me a new perspective to look at the world and especially myself.” —A lonely philosopher 8/27/10 (rating=4)

“good read” — 10/8/10 (rating=4)

“it's my thesis...i've been interested with loneliness since i began feeling it myself.and well, that's the time i made up my mind to conquer my fear.” —veronika petrova 1/18/11 (rating=4)

“shits deep” —naynay 4/8/11 (rating=4)

Ratings so far: 4 3 3 3 3 0 4 3 3 5 2 3 3 4 5 5 3 5 3 3 3 4 4 5 3 3 4 3 5 3 3 3 0 4 2 4 3 3 4 4 4 5 4 4 3 (Average=3.4)

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