Loneliness is one of the evils of our time. And we try to avoid it by resorting to all possible means and remedies. We plunge into a frenzy of stimuli to forget loneliness. “We yearn for distraction, a panorama of visions, sounds, emotions and excitations in which as many things as possible should be piled up in the shortest possible time”, as said Alan Watts.
But loneliness always comes back, it stalks us when we lower our guard because we cannot escape from ourselves. And when those stimuli are turned off, when we are no longer surrounded by people, nor do we watch television, we close the book and the mobile is turned off, we are left alone with ourselves and what we see – or perhaps what we do not see – scares us or condemns us to the deepest boredom. That is why Seneca said that “Loneliness is not being alone, but being empty.”
Chosen loneliness vs. imposed loneliness
There is no single loneliness. Loneliness imposed is one that we do not seek or want and that is related to negative feelings of sadness, melancholy and/or inner emptiness. That kind of loneliness unleashes the same physiological reactions as pain, hunger or thirst. Because our brain perceives that being separated from the community, socially isolated, is an emergency. If we continue to descend in that spiral of loneliness and do not learn to enjoy our company, we are likely to end up in the pit of depression.
However, the chosen loneliness is not harmful, quite the opposite. Loneliness is a conditio sine qua non for introspection, to find ourselves and clarify our ideas and feelings. That is why Seneca also differentiated the solitudes:
“We tend to guard the distressed and the terrified so that they do not misuse solitude. No thoughtless person should be left alone; in such cases, he only plans bad intentions and weaves patterns of future dangers for himself or for others because his most basic desires come into play; the mind shows the fear or shame it used to repress; it stimulates its audacity, agitates its passions and stimulates its anger”.
This philosopher believed that not everyone can stay alone – or that we should not be alone in all circumstances of life. If we are mature, we have a good mental balance and we have a rich inner world, enjoying our own company will make us happy because we can maintain control and discern what is good for us. However, if we are going through a period of emotional ups and downs that prevent us from distinguishing the beneficial from the harmful, it is better to have that external point of view that helps us put everything in perspective.
The inner emptiness that causes the feeling of loneliness
In the “Letters to Lucilio”, Seneca narrates that Crates, seeing a man who was walking away, asked him what he was doing alone.
He said: “I am not alone, I walk with myself.”
To which Crates replied: “Be careful, because you go in the company of a bad man.”
Thus Seneca calls attention on the fact that we are never completely alone, because when the social framework falls, when we run out of stimuli with which to entertain ourselves – or drug ourselves – we are left with ourselves. And if we feel alone in those moments, it means that we are in bad company.
The experience of loneliness implies a disconnection from people to plunge into a state of social inhibition that forces us to look inside ourselves. Sometimes, that look inward can be scary because we don’t like what we see or just don’t find it too interesting. That, without a doubt, is the worst loneliness because it is born from an irremissible emptiness where inner peace has no place.
Feeling empty is a strange and uncomfortable feeling. Some people perceive it as a kind of emotional and intellectual numbness where boredom feels at home. There is no doubt that the feeling of emptiness is not pleasant. We are likely to feel dissatisfied, confused and even upset. However, trying to fill that space with external stimuli will only deepen the inner hole even more, condemning us to an unsolicited loneliness.
That emptiness usually comes from a lack of meaning in life and, of course, from the loss of connection with oneself. When you live too much outwardly, the link with the interior is lost. Then you run the risk of losing your voice, looking inside and discovering that there is nothing interesting to stick to. As Watts said, “When life is empty with respect to the past and without purpose with respect to the future, the present is filled with emptiness.”
What is the antidote? First of all, know yourself. It is not a case that this was the imperative engraved on the doors of the temple of Apollo in Delphi. The second essential step is to feed our inner world. Only when we stop escaping from ourselves can we make sure that we will never be alone again.