What Is Existential Loneliness?
Loneliness has nothing to do with people, it’s a mindset.
That may be hard to take in but it’s true.
Sure, you might be thinking, “I wouldn’t be lonely if others were around.”
Yet, this doesn’t account for those that voice feeling alone in a room full of people.
So from the outset, we see existing two types of loneliness.
- Distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder loneliness
- Existential loneliness
The-distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder variety is straightforward, namely once the object of one’s desire is satisfied they are no longer lonely. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Existential loneliness is a bit more cunning. The object of one’s desire is life’s meaning, purpose, value, and direction.
For many individuals, this seems unattainable. Why? Because of the conditions in which we live.
Religion is branded as silly and make-believe. Science provides a world of irrationality, randomness, and chance. Psychology has all but evaporated the imagination with its rats and levers. And, the human mind is left, once more, with her thumb up her ass unable to interact with her environment.
What’s The Problem? Why Are We Disconnected & Lonely?
With our incessant need to have all the answers, we’ve unfortunately discarded the ultimate answer, which is the ability to connect and interact with our immediate and present conditions.
We instead fantasize about what conditions must exist in order for the interaction to occur.
This is a tragedy, yet we call it “growing up.”
For instance, children naturally interact with their environment, they don’t place necessary conditions down prior to the engagement. This is true freedom.
Oh, but not us.
We’ve enslaved ourselves through a process of what I term “the plight of the sophisticated.”
We use our heightened capacity to think and we’ve somehow managed to rid ourselves of meaning, purpose, value, and direction.
This has been done by dividing everything up into its smallest constituent parts, first of the universe with the sciences, then of ourselves with existential philosophy.
Consequently, we’ve created for ourselves tiny little compartments of identity that barely scratch the service of what it is to be human.
Therefore, I affirm that all loneliness is fundamentally synonymous with these tiny little pockets of identity which prohibit legitimate interaction with anything other than ourselves.
To escape these compartments is to disarm loneliness. Below are my insights into achieving this ideal.
Insight # 1: Forgiveness Enables Awareness
Ironically, loneliness always has a companion: guilt. Therefore, forgiveness plays a crucial role. One poet captured it poignantly,
To think of one’s self as a separate and independent of others is what needs to be forgiven. That with the knowledge that there is no “self”.. that all people and all things are in fact one great Self. To believe self-forgiveness is necessary is but to misinterpret reality. That there is no distance from holiness, and that all guilt is but a need for a correction of perception.
Let’s interact with this passage a bit. What is this nebulous self? A new theory has emerged which attempts to convey its interdependency called Ontological Addiction Theory. William Van Gordon, editor of Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness and one of its main proponents writes,
Most psychological models relating to the self and human functioning imply that the self exists as a discrete, independent entity. However, ontological addiction theory asserts that the self (and indeed all phenomena) does not manifest as a discrete standalone entity but relies on innumerable causes and conditions.
To take the human body (i.e., a key part of the self) as an example, it exists in reliance upon the wind, rivers, oceans, plants, and animals – we breathe in others’ out-breath and they breathe out our in-breath. The fact that phenomena are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent (i.e., to the point of being without discrete boundaries) means that they are of the nature of ‘non-self’. In other words, we are ‘empty’ of an inherently existing self but we are ‘full’ of all things.
This emptiness can exist without the fullness. It is a result of living bound, of a curved and/or non-existent teleology.
Teleology: the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise. In other words, reason or explanation for something as a function of its end, purpose, or goal.
Now, I’m not prepared to argue for the existence of the self in this article, which I do believe in, but I am open to the “fullness” of this self, the parameters of which extend much further than usually understood. Moreover, I believe this can provide the needed teleology for the human spirit.
This may seem complicated but I can assure it’s not. It’s actually common sense.
This is not our world, we are in it and apart of it. If the planet is an organism we are simply like another cog on the wheel. This may sound like it surrenders our autonomy, but this is far from the truth. Could you imagine the heart deciding to abandon the body? This isn’t autonomy, it’s suicide!
Thus, the interdependent and interconnected self is jam-packed with significance, with purpose, with an overall goal. It works together with all other things, with a common agenda: life-flourishing.
As previously mentioned, children naturally engage their conditions with this form of the self. If you offer them a garden, they’ll dig it; offer them dishes to clean and they’ll scrub it; offer them love and they return it. The interaction is seemingly endless.
The real question is, “Why have we removed ourselves so far from this paradigm? Why are we trying to be an autonomous heart?”
Insight # 2: The Story We Author Enables Interaction
More practically speaking, all purpose, goals, significance, and meaning are void without a tale to tell them.
A theater is hollow without its script being actualized through performance, through expression.
Forgiveness is, therefore, the beginning of the process of allowing oneself to “re-author” their narrative.
The guilt of not being able to hack it, of not being good enough, of having to prove or justify self-worth through performance can be overturned by the simple understanding that the self is validated by merely being a part of everything else.
In this story, you author your role and emphasize your specific contribution (e.g., social and/or environmental involvement) as a necessary part of the functioning of the whole. Recall, this is not our Earth, we are part of it, another cog on the wheel.
The key is to understand this transition, from self to interdependent self, is narrative.
*All current reality is interpreted through the lens of our story, specifically it’s beginning (our past) and its end (our goals). To properly transition we must first change our perception of our beginning and thereby establish a new direction, a new ending, a new goal.*
However, to begin to re-write this tale we must first observe where it went wrong.
Insight # 3: The True Self Enables A Counter Culture
Let’s examine why the independent self produces this existential loneliness and why it’s always accompanied by guilt. For starters, this independent self needs to prove itself worthy. It needs to justify its existence through behavior.
Why is this?
Well, culturally life has become a tryout and you either make it or get cut. That’s horrifying. Moreover, If this doesn’t demonstrate the performance-driven nature of our western culture then I’m not sure what does.
Back in the day, one’s existence was validated by their tribe and their identity was forged within their specific group. There were no tryouts. You were already a part of something.
For example, if I were to introduce myself only a few hundred years ago it would most likely sound like this:
Greetings, I am the son of Gerard, son of Harry, hail from Connecticut.
I was identified with my group, my people, my area. my identity was grounded in something outside of and greater than myself, something I had no influence over. I made the cut by being born into it.
This satisfied the feelings of inferiority and inadequacy but didn’t really stymie the competition. Sure, this has its flaws, group exclusivity being one of them, but it was on the right track. In my humble opinion, it just didn’t take it far enough. Nonetheless, it fulfilled three vital purposes: it provided meaning, value, and direction, all the necessary ingredients to a healthy identity.
Our current culture is the first in the history of humanity to be tribeless. It promotes little meaning, renders values completely subjective, and fosters selfish goals. It’s truly bizarre.
We have tiny families that live in artificial houses and each individual resides in their own separate compartments. We socialize on the internet and sacrifice face-to-face interaction. We bond with Netflix rather than with each other. We prefer a fern in the living room to a downtrodden path in the forest. We’ve separated ourselves not just from each other but from the world.
Loneliness? This isn’t a feeling anymore but a lifestyle.
Consider how we define ourselves: by vocation, by style, by tastes, by fashion, by attitude, and so on and so forth.
In each category, we are measured by how well we succeed in being the best in our vocation, the most stylish, with the finest of taste, the most culturally fashionable, and the best attitude per our niche. Heck, for some folks, it’s about being the best at the exact opposite culturally. But in any event, it’s about being the best.
Here’s the caveat: this makes us all, more or less, utter failures. A few become the best and transform into an idol for the average Joe, but they usually succumb to the pressure in a short time. Hell, that’s what gave birth to the tabloids!
And then, when they do fall, they too feel the guilt of the stumble, and lonely because no one can understand their plight. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!
Moral of the story? Whether you’re the so-called best or worst you end up lonely and guilty. Surely there is a better way… Nancy Colier, author of Inviting a Monkey To Tea: Befriending Your Mind and Discovering Lasting Contentment, thinks so, she states,
What happens when we stop trying to change ourselves into something better is nothing like what we imagine: We envision stepping off the self-help train and landing smack inside someone incomplete and unsatisfactory. And yet in truth, the simple (but not easy) act of inviting ourselves into our own life has the effect of placing us at the center of something beautiful and extraordinary.
Giving ourselves permission to be as we are miraculously creates a kind of love for ourselves—not so much for our individual characteristics, but for our being. It’s not just for our being, but for the truth, whatever that is. It is as if whatever we find inside ourselves, whether we wish it were here or not, is okay and we are okay. Ultimately, we shift from trying to become lovable to being love itself. And amazingly, from this place, the not-enough person we thought we were has simply vanished, or more likely, never was.
Insight # 4: Retelling The Tale Enables Transformation
Retelling stories is not only a powerful teaching method but as noted, who we are is in sum the story we continuously tell ourselves. That’s why ancient tribes told magical tales of their ancestors, fables with a memorable moral fabric and inspirational characters worth emulating. The story defined tribal identity! That’s how powerful the story is.
Let’s take a gander at Alcoholics Anonymous as an example of the power of the story.
A technique used in the meetings of A.A. is to have an individual share their personal story – a testimony as it were. The story is to have three integral components:
- Where the individual was prior to their recovery
- What happened that motivated them to change
- What they are like currently and how they are growing, changing, and transforming.
Yet, within the retelling of each narrative something magical occurs. First, a new understanding of “where they were occurs.” They start to comprehend their life in a more positive and instructive light, if for no other reason then to help someone with a similar story.
Then they explain what happened and what motivated them to change – usually pain but not limited to it.
However, once they move on to the present day the embellishment begins and this is of necessity. Let’s call it vision.
Most likely when they retell the story it’s a bit better than their life is in actuality, but eventually, it becomes their reality. The more they practice the lifestyle, the more they discuss it with others, the more it becomes a part of them, eventually, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “they can preach the good news wherever they go and only if they have to, use words.”
So, begin. Tell a new tale. Share a new testimony. Inspire yourself. Interact with your environment. Get involved. Make this a story that plays on repeat. Don’t be the autonomous heart, make yours beat mean something.
Will it be difficult? Undoubtedly.
We are working against a culturally ingrained narrative. What happens when you go against the grain? You get splinters.
So it may feel odd, but the results are in, the interdependent-interconnected self creates fulfillment, rest, and satisfaction. And how? By providing an abundance of meaning, purpose, direction, and value to one’s life.
It’s amazing the identity that can be forged when one is a part of the world rather than the center of it.
It’s equally as astonishing from this vantage point how quickly the existential loneliness evaporates.
Still not sold?
Please take a moment and watch the video below.
Oh, and remember, make your beat mean something…
Jordan Gee. Explications On A Course In Miracles. (2019)