Americans lead lonely lives. Or so say so many headlines. Study after study posits that we have never been more socially isolated than we are now, and that the pain of loneliness is expressed not just in our psychic yearning for companionship but also in our physical afflictions. Lonely minds are also lonely bodies, experiencing higher rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, dementia, cancer, impaired immune function, inflammation, and premature death. The lethality of loneliness has been compared to smoking fifteen cigarettes per day, and to the physical effects of severe alcoholism. Some studies even indicate that lonely bodies exhibit altered genetic and cellular structures.
Paradoxically, these revelations have arrived at the very moment that our smart phones, designed to keep us constantly connected, have increasingly colonized our lives. Our electronic devices ding and ring and chirp and buzz at all hours of the day and night, calling us back to our work, reminding us to make time for play—and yet all of those alerts and notifications leave us feeling empty, drained, more alone and alienated than ever. And just as our appetite for and consumption of social media has become a daily dietary staple—allowing us to keep in touch with people all around the world—our personal interactions have somehow become more and more shallow and less and less fulfilling.
Over the last twenty years, feelings of loneliness have doubled—up from 20 per cent of American adults in 1980 to an astonishing 40 per cent in 2010. But is this a purely modern phenomenon? Or does American loneliness have deeper cultural and historical roots?
In the nineteenth century, loneliness and solitude occupied the minds of many American thinkers. In 1863, for example, the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson wrote hauntingly about the ache and anxiety of isolation:
The Loneliness One dare not sound —
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size —
The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see —
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny —
The Horror not to be surveyed —
But skirted in the Dark —
With Consciousness suspended —
After being under Lock —
I fear me this — is Loneliness —
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate — or seal —
Dickinson’s lonely horror, which she “skirted in the Dark,” cut into the caverns and corridors of her very soul and, at least at times, sealed her off from the pleasures and obligations of friendship.
Scholars have long disagreed about the reasons behind Dickinson’s renunciation of society: Did the anguish of isolation inspire, or “illuminate,” her lyrical creativity? Did she make a voluntary, conscious, artistic decision to retreat? Or did sickness reflexively lead to an unwelcome seclusion? Notably, she was afflicted with iritis in her mid-thirties (an inflammation of the muscles of the eye) and died in 1886 after two and a half years of prolonged illness from Bright’s disease (historically understood as inflammation of the kidneys and frequently associated with hypertension and heart disease). Whatever the reasons for her emotional pain and embodied suffering, Dickinson’s solitary life and work often reads much like a nineteenth-century version of our twenty-first-century visceral fear of being left alone with ourselves.
In the twentieth century, as Americans increasingly flocked to big cities, images of urban loneliness became more widespread. Take, for only one instance, Edward Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks (1942), a now-ubiquitous symbol of isolation within the crowded city: Four lone souls find themselves imprisoned inside the glass cage of an anonymous diner, together and yet wholly, impenetrably apart. Their existential longing, their cosmic aloneness, is on perpetual display for all to see. Their fluorescent faces stare desolately—thoughtlessly—into separate, invisible distances. Hopper’s heart-rending painting portrays a version of what William James described in 1895 as “the nightmare view of life,” life at “the edge of the slope,” a life not worth living.
But some mid-twentieth-century thinkers were beginning to pick apart these blurred categories. In the wake of the Holocaust and devastation of WWII, after Europe had been ravaged by the political isolation of individuals left powerless by totalitarian regimes, it had become increasingly apparent that solitude—the freedom to keep company with oneself—was something distinct from isolation and loneliness. In 1957, the German-American theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich described this striking difference: “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone,” he declared. “It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”
These distinctions also captured the political theorist Hannah Arendt’s imagination, and, in 1953, she wrote a formative essay, “Ideology and Terror.” She had fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and had become a naturalized American citizen in 1951, and she drew upon her experience of totalitarianism in Europe to develop a triumvirate—isolation (Isolation), loneliness (Verlassenheit), and solitude (Einsamkeit)—that would be at the heart of all of her subsequent thinking.
For Arendt, isolation threatened political life. Tyrannical governments used lies and propaganda to remake reality, to rewrite history, rendering the individual’s relationship with her world unrecognizable. Terror severed people’s political contacts, and it destroyed their ability to deliberate, judge, and act in public. Tyranny transformed the public sphere into an uninhabitable, unnavigable wilderness.
Loneliness was an even more extreme state of “uprootedness” or “superfluousness,” as Arendt put it. It not only threatened public political life. It also destroyed private life and the individual’s capacity for thought—a hallmark of totalitarian governments. “Isolation and loneliness are not the same,” Arendt observed. “I can be isolated—that is in a situation in which I cannot act, because there is nobody who will act with me—without being lonely; and I can be lonely—that is in a situation in which I as a person feel myself deserted by all human companionship—without being isolated.” The peculiar thing about totalitarianism, as she understood it, was that it capitalized on isolation and loneliness to destroy both public and private life, leaving the individual politically and existentially homeless. Verlassenheit can also be translated as “abandonment,” which is what Arendt meant when she said that loneliness leaves the individual with “no place in the world [to be] recognized and guaranteed by others.” Lonely people are abandoned people who don’t “belong to the world at all,” she lamented, which is “among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”
Unlike isolation and loneliness, solitude carved out space for the thinking activity, for the inner dialogue that makes moral judgments—the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood—possible. In her Denktagebuch (thought diary), Arendt indicated that Einsamkeit was the state of being “alone with myself, thinking.” And she continued to develop this concept in “Ideology and Terror,” when she wrote:
All thinking, strictly speaking, is done in solitude and is a dialogue between me and myself; but this dialogue of the two-in-one does not lose contact with the world of my fellow-men because they are represented in the self with whom I lead the dialogue of thought. The problem of solitude is that this two-in-one needs the others in order to become one again: one unchangeable individual whose identity can never be mistaken for that of any other. For the confirmation of my identity I depend entirely upon other people; and it is the great saving grace of companionship for solitary men that it makes them “whole” again.
For Arendt, then, the private and public worlds were distinguishable even if they weren’t entirely separate. She was never lonely in her solitude because she had the freedom to think, to converse and debate with herself, to discover truth and meaning. In solitude, she cultivated a friendship with her deepest, innermost self. But she also needed a community of others to recognize her unique, “unexchangeable” self—and she understood that being fully human requires our recognition, and even celebration, of plurality and difference. We move from the glorious solitude of our own thought into a shared world of public deliberation, judgment, and action.
The epidemic of American loneliness has deep historical and cultural roots. In many ways, American history can be read as a story of loss—from the very beginning, Native Americans and African slaves and white European colonists all felt (even if in markedly different ways) the loss of community, the loss of a sense of place, the loss of spirituality, the loss, even, of love. Dickinson and Hopper are only two examples of this American iconography of loss. But what makes Arendt’s thought so illuminating to lonely Americans today, in the twenty-first century, is precisely her positive promise of solitude. Through the practice of solitude, we can recover a sense of belonging, first to ourselves and then to the world.
We are more plugged in, more connected, than we have ever been. And yet we are also lonelier. We are facing a president whose daily Tweets instill fear, uncertainty, suspicion, and doubt among the population; we are witnessing a renewed assault on immigrants, the LBGTIQ community, women, Jews, Blacks, Muslims, the poor, the elderly, and the sick; and our public spaces for open democratic debate have been slowly eroding. No wonder, then, that we feel lonelier than ever.
Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is to turn off our smart phones, turn off social media, turn off the news, and consciously cultivate private spaces for solitary contemplation. Arendt reminds us that if we can learn to keep ourselves company, we can free our minds and our bodies from the terror of not being seen or heard. We can learn to appreciate and love our unique, unexchangable selves, which, in turn, makes it possible for us to appreciate and love human plurality in all of its beauty and complexity. Through the practice of solitude, we can illuminate our common world.
Jennifer Stitt is a historian of modern American thought, culture, and politics who earned a B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She’s working on her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives and writes in Birmingham.