You would think the opposite of being lonely is to be surrounded by friends and family. But it isn’t. Even among loved ones who care deeply about us, we still can experience extreme loneliness. Why so? If a person can suffer just as much in a crowd as in a empty room, then what combats loneliness if it isn’t a crowd of people?
Over the past few months I have been studying and applying Stoicism to my life. Stoicism is a Greek philosophy that was founded by a man named Zeno at around 300 BCE. In the subsequent generations of Stoic philosophers we have great minds such as Seneca, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and others whose names are forever lost to time.
The major tenants of what is called a “practical philosophy” is knowing what is within your control and what is not. Those things that are not in our control we must not waste emotional energy worrying about something that cannot be altered. It is believed that the suffering that we pile on ourselves about such things that may never come to pass, are often more brutal than the event that is feared. Why make yourself suffer more than you have to? This is a pinnacle question of this philosophy.
What is it that we control? It isn’t our possessions, they can be stolen. It isn’t our relationships, people die or separate from us. It isn’t our bodies, because one’s health can and one day will deteriorate, and just as easily our lives can be snatched away. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychologist who survived the entirety of the holocaust. His parents, wife, children, friends, neighbors all died in gas chambers, were worked to death, or simply gave up and died. Yet, he and a handful of others were not broken, they never gave up. And as a psychologist he asked himself, what separated them from everyone else who gave up?
Like in Stoicism, he realized the one thing that will always be ours to control, that no human can ever take away from us, is out minds. Arms and legs can be severed. Blindness and deafness can be inflicted upon us. We can easily have our lives ended by someone else. But our minds, and in particular, how our minds react to such things, is what separated those who lived from those who gave up and died.
The only thing that we truly have control over in this world is our minds. We control how we perceive and react to events. We control and are responsible for our actions and words. Outside of our minds, we have little, and often no, control of anything outside of our minds.
So how do we handle that which is out of our control? Don’t worry and let it consume you. If you have no influence over what is happening, then don’t pile more suffering upon yourself by torturing yourself with thoughts and feelings we do control. Why suffer more than we already are?
There is much more to Stoicism than just this dichotomy of what is within our control and not worrying what is outside our control. It goes much further in giving guidelines as to how to perceive the world and how to react to life’s events.
So what does this have to do with loneliness? How can perspective change how we look at being alone? After I wrote and published last night’s blog, I reflected on how much of what I suffer now is not caused by others but by me. I looked back at texts from earlier in the day that fed into my loneliness and forced myself to step back and look at what I was doing to myself. I was reading rejection where there was none spoken or given. I was feeling guilt that I gave offense when none was given or perceived. In the end, I realized that what I was suffering from the torture of loneliness and rejection by my own hand. It is not being inflicted upon me by others.
When I took a step back and reflected on how my life currently is, yes there are many things that I want to improve upon; relationships and friendships in particular. But I also want to improve on coping with the hours and days I often spend alone. I must work on liking my own company. I must learn to live alone and be ok with it.
And I recognized last night after I published my blog that my perspective about being alone was being muddled with loneliness. The two don’t go hand in hand, as being alone in a crowd clearly proves. I do not have control over being alone. I do however, have control over how I react to that aloneness. And throwing myself into a pit of self pity and despair was the wrong way to react to it.
I am not proposing delusional thinking that everything is perfectly fine and ignore what is bothering me. All that does is fester and seeps into every part of my psyche corrupting and polluting my thoughts and how I look at my life. I am still working out how to look at my aloneness in a healthy way. But with Stoicism, for the first time in memory, I have hope that I have found a path that leads to peace.