A Proper Pathology of Loneliness

by Cassius Galenus

When loneliness arises, one should observe its cause: not a lack of company, but a sense of deficiency in one’s self: an unwillingness to be with oneself. It is true that this deficiency often compels the lonely person towards externals, such as the company that appears to be absent (though this is only the best-case scenario). Yet this simply reveals that one’s self has established itself on externals, for only by so founding itself can its own deficiency, in solitude, manifest as an external need.

Underlying Causes

The most common diagnosis for those suffering from loneliness is that the self has become “insecure,” and the most common prescription is to secure it through the practice of self-esteem. This esteem is self-esteem in the sense that it is both for the self and from the self. Since esteem for (and from) externalities lacks this dialectical quality, the popular practice of self-esteem prioritizes the internal. It seeks to re-establish the self there, viewing the internal as the root of security, confidence, and self-love.

This common view only gets half of the picture. It recognizes that nothing external could possibly suffice for a deficiency in one’s self. Yet it goes too far in assuming the opposite: that there is something (the internal) which the self can found itself upon and, so doing, become self-sufficient. Without this roundabout (yet commonly accepted) form of reasoning, the injunction to “look within” would, naturally enough, be met by confusion: “within what?” Indeed, the common view does not have an answer, but through the urgency of loneliness it trivializes the question in favor of a more pressing task: getting a glimpse inside.

What people often find upon such “inward” reflection is a collection of moods, beliefs, and real or imagined projects. One perceives a certain kind of privileged access to these things, uncommon among externals, and so allows them to satisfy the unclarified condition of “interiority.”

Yet closer inspection reveals that these moods, beliefs, and projects are no more stable and secure than those foundations previously considered “external.” The failure of a project, the refutation of a belief, or a simple change in mood can bring the whole thing toppling down. Alas, privileged access does not imply mastery. What the common view had called “the internal” turns out to behave largely in accordance with externalities; what appeared to be an insulated enclosure turns out to be a mere canvas drape. This is no place to secure a self.

In fact, to be a self is to be fundamentally insecure. One’s self is necessarily founded on externals (although now we may begin to feel silly calling them this, without knowing what they are external to), and so is constantly engaged in its own deficiency. It is a wonder that people generally do not notice this—or perhaps it is no wonder, as most deficiencies are readily obscured in external pursuits through a subtle shifting and rearranging of the self that never calls attention to its own activity. It takes a truly staggering loss to render the self deficient in a way that exposes this behavior (along with its futility) and compels inward reflection. How great the loss that unmasks even this interior as a simple mudroom and foyer, and so compels one deeper!

True inward reflection reflects nothing. The move inwards was, after all, a mistake. Yet in reflecting nothing, one annihilates that mistake, collapsing the entire distinction into inner nothingness, leaving the externals nothing to stand external to. Without this barrier enclosing oneself, loneliness has no where to hide.

This is the proper cure, though admittedly it cures a sickness that the lonely person did not realize they had. Loneliness turns out to be a mere symptom of their real sickness, this hypertension of the self. We have a cure for this, but (consequently) we do not have a cure for the deficiency of self that initially manifested as the cause of loneliness. This deficiency was mischaracterized as an external lack, when it was simply a lack: a lack that is a nothingness (a self).

This lack is called the Hollow Healer—and the proper prescription for loneliness is to embrace this lack. Of course, embracing a lack is no easy task, and for the very sick (often those who have been misdiagnosed, who may have spent years on a regimen of self-esteem) this practice may feel slippery and obscure.

To help, I have compiled a list of concrete (if roundabout) ways of letting the Healer do its work. Depending on the patient and their particular disposition, one or several of the following may be prescribed:

  • As loneliness arises, observe that the presence or absence of company is not in your hands, and that you are often compelled to spend time alone.

  • If, when alone, you find yourself deficient, reflect on the foundations of your self by asking: “what do I identify with?” or “what do I call ‘mine?’” Ask yourself whether there is anything more stable and secure to found your self upon. Run through the possibilities, and inquire of each “where are the cracks?” or “what are the conditions of collapse?” Can any foundation support the infinite weight of your self? Repeat this inquiry to the point of exhaustion.

  • Try asking yourself, rather directly, “what am I?” or “what am I meant to be?” Without expecting an answer to come, reflect that this question is of utmost importance, and that nothing should concern you more.

  • When in a public place, observe others passing nearby and ask “how have they founded themselves? What do they consider their own?” Try to be as particular and accurate as possible. Consider whether these foundations are more secure than your own; whether any of these people have managed to secure themselves against loneliness. Upon concluding, in each case, that they have not, reflect on the strange kinship created by this pervasive loneliness—that no self is secure against partial or complete loss; that we are united in our total isolation.

  • When eating, reflect that the food will only satiate you for a short time. Reflect that you do not expect your stomach to secure self-sufficiency, and that to reject externals in this pursuit (food) would only make the matter worse. Notice that you are not distressed by this state of affairs. This reflection can be extended to other activities of the self: work, laundry, sleeping, love-making, visiting friends and family—the ceaseless slog of chores that we call life—each task invariably failing to fill the lack that it addresses and repeating in vain unto death. Extend your reflection until you encounter distress; then, continue eating.

  • Spend time alone every day, preferably somewhere outside with good light and circulation.

  • If you find yourself particularly disposed to loneliness, consider the circumstances in which loneliness has arisen in the past. Observe that its arising is not related to your actual isolation; that loneliness arises just as well in the day as at night, in company as in solitude, among friends as well as enemies. Could these externals serve as its cause?

  • If you begin to suspect that, considering the fragility of every possible foundation, it may be best to give up entirely on the project of securing yourself—that is, to found your self on nothing at all—then recall that this the self is precisely this nothingness, and that a self founded upon nothing (itself) is in the same relation to itself as that inherent in the popular notion of “self-esteem:” the self founded on nothing supports itself for and from itself. Holding tightly to this thought, cast the project off as you would a heavy burden, or a small animal clawing at your flesh.

As always, I advise all my patients to experiment with these practices carefully. Proceed one at a time, so as to avoid any antagonistic interactions between multiple treatments. Note any changes in the magnitude or manifestation of your symptoms (loneliness), as well as any unintended side-effects. Be aware that, just as the flush of fever indicates a healthy immune response, so a sudden spike in loneliness may actually indicate that the treatment is working effectively. Failure to complete a course of treatment (normally prescribed for a full lifetime) may result in chronic or recurrent loneliness, so continue the regimen even after symptoms subside.

Although solitude is certainly an important aspect of recovery, it is not recommended to proceed in this regimen entirely alone. I strongly advise discussing your course of treatment with either a qualified professional, a fellow patient, or—if neither is forthcoming—a good friend.

Written on August 7, 2016


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