“O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.”
– W.H. Auden
I’ve been reading a fair amount of Auden lately, and this particular verse stuck out. A lot of his poetry seems do deal with loneliness and longing and the attempts to endure or transcend them. Take away all our distractions and we’re really just a bunch of lonely individuals hurtling towards our own deaths.* We all have to grapple with that in some manner.
Ross Douthat wrote a piece on modern loneliness and suicide:
This trend is striking without necessarily being surprising. As the University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox pointed out recently, there’s a strong link between suicide and weakened social ties: people — and especially men — become more likely to kill themselves “when they get disconnected from society’s core institutions (e.g., marriage, religion) or when their economic prospects take a dive (e.g., unemployment).” That’s exactly what we’ve seen happen lately among the middle-aged male population, whose suicide rates have climbed the fastest: a retreat from family obligations, from civic and religious participation, and from full-time paying work.
[…]Because community can imprison as well as sustain, and sometimes it needs to be escaped in order to be appreciated.
In today’s society, that escape is easier than ever before. And that’s a great gift to many people: if you don’t have much in common with your relatives and neighbors, if you’re gay or a genius (or both), if you’re simply restless and footloose, the world can feel much less lonely than it would have in the past. Our society is often kinder to differences and eccentricities than past eras, and our economy rewards extraordinary talent more richly than ever before.
The problem is that as it’s grown easier to be remarkable and unusual, it’s arguably grown harder to be ordinary. To be the kind of person who doesn’t want to write his own life script, or invent her own idiosyncratic career path. To enjoy the stability and comfort of inherited obligations and expectations, rather than constantly having to strike out on your own. To follow a “little way” rather than a path of great ambition. To be more like Ruthie Leming than her brother.
Readers of this blog know that I would like there to be stronger social institutions, and for people to have a stronger sense of their place and their responsibility than just being discreet societal atoms achieving their own self-actualization. But then I am also myself a perpetual misfit, closer to Sherlock Holmes than Sam Gamgee.
I was always a painfully shy, geeky and sensitive kid. Grew up into a weird, arts guy, went off to university with the vague hope of getting laid and achieving some sort of bohemian existence, gradually backed myself into an alien religious tradition, becoming the eccentric celibate I am now.
There was never any sort of narrative of rebelling against and finally returning to my family’s traditions: my family had largely cut its ties with whatever religious/cultural obligations my parents may have inherited, and took a very libertarian approach to whatever my sister and I wanted to be. I suppose the narrative is one of a realization of what loneliness is, and the various distractions we put in its way. Sexual liberation was one of the biggest distractions that was thrown my way (and the extent to which the culture around it acts as a sort of erzatz form of communalism and religious transcendence isn’t noted enough), but not the only one: my tendency to substitute academic accomplishment instead of genuine relationships, for instance.
But to return to Auden’s couplet: “You shall love your crooked neighbour/With your crooked heart.” It sounds corny, but the more I’ve lived this short life the more I see it’s true: the way we do defeat loneliness is through love. Not just liking or enjoying the company of others, but loving them unconditionally. Being willing to sacrifice for them. Of course we can’t do it perfectly, but we have to try. It doesn’t matter if this takes the form of being married with kids or being a hermit in the middle of the desert: if we can’t find a way to dislodge ourselves from being the center of our respective worlds, we will be dead long before the Reaper takes us to the guillotine.
But we’re more prey to loneliness these days in part because liking is displacing loving. This is where the weakening of institutions does play a role; the extent to which we feel bound to someone or something becomes limited to, well, our feelings towards them. Marriage these days doesn’t suggest much more of a mystical bond than, “we really like each other”, and so the idea that you really should stick it through with someone, even when they are unlikable, becomes untenable.
I’m as much a child of this as anyone else, and in some cases have profited: how much more painful would my conversion have been if I came from a family of devout Jews? Still, the, “I didn’t ask for this but I have to deal with it”, aspects of our lives are the ones that often give us the opportunity to grow up and to learn how to love.
But as much as social institutions help/hinder our battle against loneliness, it’s really up to us individuals, in our own peculiar, weird lives, to make it work. Whether or not its a losing battle is more of a religious question, but we’ve got to fight.
*I don’t mean to imply that this is what reality ultimately reduces to; we, as spiritual beings, ultimately occupy a much more wonderful and terrifying place in the cosmic order of things. But before the paradoxes of Christianity can be tackled seriously, we have to be willing to own up to the brute facts in front of us.