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Essay Review: Loneliness


by Thomas J. Cottle - March 12, 2009

Dumm, T. (2008). Loneliness as a way of life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. Cacioppo, J., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York: Norton. Published seventy-five years ago soon after the Great Depression, Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonely Hearts surely struck a chord in American culture not only in its exploration of the faces of evil and a worshipful public, but for its raw penetration of the lonely soul as well. Seventeen years later, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd placed some of these same themes into a social scientific context and once again found a resonance, this time in a postwar culture. Now, appropriately, two impressive volumes appear almost as accidental partners, the social scientific Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John Cacioppo and William Patrick, and the stunning literary exegesis of Loneliness as a Way of Life by Amherst College professor... (preview truncated at 150 words.)

Dumm, T. (2008). Loneliness as a way of life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.


Cacioppo, J., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York: Norton.



Published seventy-five years ago soon after the Great Depression, Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonely Hearts surely struck a chord in American culture not only in its exploration of the faces of evil and a worshipful public, but for its raw penetration of the lonely soul as well. Seventeen years later, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd placed some of these same themes into a social scientific context and once again found a resonance, this time in a postwar culture. Now, appropriately, two impressive volumes appear almost as accidental partners, the social scientific Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John Cacioppo and William Patrick, and the stunning literary exegesis of Loneliness as a Way of Life by Amherst College professor Thomas Dumm. And once again, one suspects that this theme of relationships interrupted, of people bereft of genuine human contact suffering in terms that may actually be incorrectly labeled as depression, will find a huge audience.


It may come as a surprise that connection, sociability really, is genetically driven. Think of it in terms of evolution: there must be deep connections to enduring communities if people are to survive. Fight and flight, those famous inhabitants of the lower brain stem, are known to most all of us. But how many have thought seriously of the utter necessity of connection and hence, our mindless pursuit of raising children to be autonomous, independent, and most incongruously, self-sufficient!


In a painstakingly careful review of wide ranging research, some of it the first author’s own work, Cacioppo and Patrick offer an impressive thesis. The presence of self-reported loneliness not only seriously depresses one’s mood, it compromises an individual’s capacity to regulate mood and cognition. Not at all esoteric reasoning, but something we all know. What may well be driving us to addictive behaviors, which surely brain scientists can now explain, or even exhibiting symptoms that resemble what psychologists label attention deficit disorder, may actually be explained by profound loneliness. And so we feel it is the alcohol, or the sex, or the shopping, or the gambling that will satisfy the loneliness Miss Lonely Hearts read daily in the letters that flooded his columns.


Consider, then, that lonely persons not only read society and make (non)sense of others’ behavior in a way that perpetuates their own loneliness, and depression, but they also begin to lose the capacity to differentiate between communications arriving simultaneously. Said simply, “Nature is connection. Which is why disconnection leads to dysregulation and damage.” And let it be said that this statement applies to an individual and a society, as well as a single cell. If one wishes to focus on the ubiquitous notion of stress, then consider the finding that loneliness produces the very same chemical stressors that contribute to physiological aging.


Now to Professor Dumm’s magnificent narrative that takes us on a tour of the relationship between Lear and Cordelia, through two of Ahab’s most intriguing hands, Ishmael and Pip, through Sam Shepard’s barely seen movie, Paris, Texas, and, astonishingly, the death of his mother and the tragically premature death of his wife. Dumm writes, and teaches, like an angel. We barely feel the intellectual weight of his thesis, discovering that we have gotten through some terribly difficult passages on the nature of our existential encounters with death and life’s ultimate payoffs, and ripoffs.


Regularly returning to ruminations on the private and public realms of our existence, Dumm is spectacular in describing solitude, aloneness, separateness, and counterfeit love of the sort that haunts us in reading Lear. Holding tight to fictional figures as well as the world of lonely salespeople (and consumers) of the sort found in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and at his own childhood dinner table in the figure of his father, loneliness, Dumm writes, may be defined as “the experience of unhappy removal from a life lived in common with others” (p. 28). Elsewhere he proffers that the social world of the lonely soul remains a “torment.” How is one not intrigued by a book that early on presents this line: “…being present at the place of our absence is what it means to experience loneliness” (p. 16). Moreover, how does one resist this invitation, painful though it may be, to reflect on life, and death: “What we leave behind will be traces of our selves, worn through use, worn-out shoes, hieroglyphs for future archivists to puzzle over” (p. 126).


Riesman proved to be ingenious. By employing the word “crowd,” he implicitly communicated distinctions among various forms of human collectivities and the affect of these collectivities on individual psyches. A crowd is neither a community nor a society. Most assuredly it is not a connected family. The salesperson, monarch, assistant cook, obsessed whaling (or is it wailing?) captain, a writer to an advice columnist, all at some level know the truth contained in C.S. Lewis’s observation that upon the birth of self conscious arrives the awareness of loneliness. We resonate too, to the last words found in Cacioppo and Patrick’s volume, written in fact by E.O. Wilson: “We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust. We must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here” (p. 271)


And that may be the point of these two notable books. We are, perhaps, but the stories we tell. In this regard, Harold Bloom may be right when he asserts that Shakespeare accomplished nothing more, and nothing less, than having put the experience of being human on paper. But if we are but the stories we tell, if we are nothing more than the plays we write, and these stories and dramas preclude our becoming mere animated dust, then we need an audience. For we long for people to hear these stories and scenes, to connect to them, and thus to us. Without them, we die too soon, or remain destined to live life as motherless children.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 12, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15588, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 7:45:39 AM

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About the Author
  • Thomas Cottle
    Boston University
    E-mail Author
    THOMAS J. COTTLE is professor of education at Boston University, and a practicing clinical psychologist. Among his books are A Sense of Self: The Work of Affirmation; Hardest Times: The Trauma of Long-Term Unemployment; At Peril: Stories of Injustice; Mind Fields: Adolescent Consciousness in a Culture of Distraction; and When the Music Stopped: Discovering My Mother.
 
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