Lonesomeness Explored

By Kevin Lewis

There is another Loneliness
That many die without,
Not want of friend occasions it,
Or circumstances or lot.
But nature sometimes, sometimes thought
And whoso befall
Is richer than could be revealed
By mortal numeral.
—Emily Dickinson

Americans know the rich complexity of lonesomeness instinctively, simply by virtue of cultural assimilation, but we tend to ignore it. Perhaps we ignore lonesomeness, as is so often the case with habitual blind spots, because the particular phenomenon has become so ingrained in our common experience of and response to our world as to become invisible. Or perhaps we ignore lonesomeness because the pervasive introspective strain is too often regarded as a symptom of weakness in personality, as a warning sign of reluctance or inability to come forward as an actor with a role to play on the stage or as a competitor primed for struggle. After all, for an individual, life in America is not given, it is to be taken or invented. Introspection and reflection, accordingly, are devalued commodities in this consumer culture. Loneliness is an embarrassment. Unproductive solitude in which the mind may wander without intention or agenda is considered a liability.

Though we are hardly unfamiliar with the words “lonesome” and “lonesomeness,” most of us too hastily assume an equivalence between “lonely” and “lonesome” and do not readily admit to our unfamiliarity with the deeper meaning of these states. When do we ever stop to examine “lonesomeness” closely for the latent meaning which remains unclarified in dictionaries and not yet examined by cultural critics? An attempt to do so will bring unanticipated rewards, including the discovery of a neglected locus of religious or religious-like expression. Indeed, I propose that lonesomeness has evolved into a culture-specific, subjective feeling state of American culture, and to know it better or to know it critically is to grasp one yet unrecognized form of the evolving American religious imagination.

In America, one adapts or discovers religion wherever and however one’s experience permits, piecing together a worldview that, as Wallace Stevens put it, “will suffice” from a crazy-quilt mix of available beliefs and values and selective personal experiences. The historical-cultural experience of numinous lonesomeness is one such source for the enterprise of personal and private religion, because it offers a nontraditional, informal encounter with an unnamed “otherness,” always inviting, always receding. This “otherness” (if not an “Other”) allows one to feel integrated and fulfilled. It would follow that, as it expresses or marks moments of deeper self-perception, lonesomeness can and should be addressed as a passing experience of sustainable self-integration, deeper well-being, and a sense of self-worth.

The experience of the American lonesome may be fleeting—and, like the privileged states of consciousness sought by the traditional mystics, it usually is. But, unlike the formally disciplined “paths” established by tradition-specific mysticisms, lonesomeness provides an open-ended, home-grown source of spiritual nurture and empowerment (from steadying self-repossession), available to the untrained, the un-“disciplined,” the unadept. Lonesomeness, as an accessible state of mind—familiar but in need of discursive “defamiliarization”—can provide for the enrichment of our native solitude, for the healing of our loneliness.

The psychologist Robert Weiss says that loneliness is a clinically conceptualized feeling state which, if it persists, can induce depression, and, accordingly, is to be understood and treated by trained clinicians as pathological. Weiss is adamant in his refusal to offer the possible solution of “cherishing” such a problematic state. In the terminology of clinical psychology, such a solution would encourage destructive masochism, the largely involuntary impulse to inflict damage upon oneself, of an emotional if not also physical kind. Of course, within the framework of his critique, he is right. But to leave it at that would be to accept the limitations of his approach. Loneliness transformed into lonesomeness is a different sort of understanding of the emotional life—a solitary consciousness that can be therapeutic, not destructive.

How so? In what sense can this feeling of solitude be a positive, spiritual dimension? Lonesomeness welcomed and explored in solitude strengthens the “inner-direction” whose weakening in Americans David Riesman regretted half a century ago in The Lonely Crowd. More than ever, as the speed of the communications age increases our tendency to “other-direction,” a temporary retreat into “one’s own” that is enabled in gifted moments of lonesomeness is increasingly needed for ballast in the psyche of Americans. Nebulous as the individual experience may be, especially when attempting to describe it to others, the common experience of lonesomeness must no longer be ignored as an experiential resource to help individuals battling loneliness and depression. The more mindful we become of loneliness, the more it can be transformed in special moments to this fulsome lonesomeness, and the better equipped we may be for self-healing, or at least for coping with the anxious solitudes that bedevil the increasing proportion of the adult population living “alone” (as the demographic statistics indicate).

As Todd Gitlin, a sociologist, has written of teaching The Lonely Crowd to freshmen and sophomores at Berkeley in the 1980s, his students had trouble grasping Riesman’s distinction between inner- and outer-direction. He writes: “They had lived their entire lives as other-directed, with radars. The notion of life with a psychic gyroscope was unimaginable.” Perhaps Riesman in the 1950s was prophetic in his analysis of a great tide turning in the psyche of a culture steadily adjusting and readjusting to the social and technological developments of the twentieth century (now the twenty-first). Gitlin’s discovery about his students underscores the usefulness now of rediscovering the particular but neglected personal and cultural resource of lonesomeness and addressing this diminished cultivation of the inner-directed potentiality in American individualism.

Perhaps Riesman’s other-directed individual helps to account for Gallup poll findings that the growth of “religiousness” in the American population, measured by claims of adherence to specific traditions, is deceptive, since participation in institutionalized religion can be a shallow affair. In America, the struggle to deepen healthful “spirituality,” if not also traditional and untraditional “religiousness,” may be a difficult one. Those who undertake it swim against a strong current. But the struggle is nonetheless imperative, if the seductive consumer culture of material success and of addictive gadget technology is not to overwhelm what the influential Protestant theologian Paul Tillich called the foundational “depth dimension” in the individual. Alfred North Whitehead’s adage, “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness, ” seems all the more applicable in an age when participation in and loyalty to all but the most flamboyant, theatrical denominational traditions is on the wane.

If a more meaningful religiousness is to survive, Whitehead’s “solitariness” in community should be emphasized, as it was in the historical Protestant tradition, when it insisted that no formal human agency be allowed to interpose itself between the believer and the transcendent. The individual is never without need for community. But only those who have become truly individual, who have taken strength from their obligatory solitariness, can form and contribute productively to a community worth anything as a community.

The kind of aware, attuned lonesomeness that I am arguing for is akin to the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s description of the peak experience, in Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, where “the whole universe is perceived as an integrated and unified whole.” It is more focused than just feeling or hearing something. The natural world is seen (and felt) as “an end in itself rather than as something to be afraid of or something to wish for or to be reacted to in some other, personal, human, self-centered way.” Thus, perception becomes “egoless,” desireless, and detached. It is felt as “a self-validating, self-justifying moment, which carries its own intrinsic value,” as it were, reminding the individual that life is indeed “worthwhile.” While the deficit condition of clinical loneliness understood as relational deprivation can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide, the qualitatively different, much richer feeling state of American lonesomeness can prove subjectively transformative, emotionally and spiritually.

Like the peak experience, when lonesomeness reaches humility, even surrender, it must wend its way back to consciousness and eventually toward integration. The gift of such an experience can bestow numerous sorts of enriching personal qualities as aftereffects, leaving one more resilient, less self-centered, less needy—strengthened for daily life. And, when lonesomeness is understood in this deeper way, we are able to listen and hear more than recordable sounds, that is, to hear beyond that limitation to just the inaudible. Perhaps then we can all be Walt Whitmans, each of us walking the beach, rapt by the mockingbird’s carol of “lonesome love”: “O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating you, / voraciously hungering for spirit: / O if I am to have so much, let me have more!”

Kevin Lewis developed his own courses in religion and culture for the Religious Studies Department at the University of South Carolina, where he has taught since 1973. He recently published his book Lonesomeness: The Spiritual Meanings of American Solitude (IBTauris/Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009).

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