In our day of swift communication, of instant participation in events both far and near, the armchair onlooker or the invalid can view and, to some extent, share in things happening half a world away. It is the day of greater awareness of each other and of each other's needs; and of attempts to fill in the chasms made by economic and cultural inequalities prevalent in various communities and lands. But, unfortunately, ours also is the day of loneliness, particularly for the elderly, a loneliness so far-reaching that in our great cities it seems to take the place once occupied by starvation.
In talking to men and women of varying backgrounds, outlook, and ages, we soon realize this feeling need not derive from a specific environment or from living by oneself; nor is it limited to any particular way of life or by personal circumstances. Rather, it seems to be due to some quality either hidden or apparent in an individual's own nature. Who has not met the "odd man out" of a large and otherwise jolly family, only he being stricken with a sense of separateness as great as if he were in a desert? Whole families embedded in the bustling impersonality of a giant city's block of flats may be lonely. Or possibly someone who has many contacts and visitors confesses himself to be "alone."
All of us have experienced loneliness at some period — perhaps when our inner thoughts seem so much our own that we cannot explain them to anyone else. Instead we have to pull up the drawbridge, so to speak, between ourselves and others, and live it out or fight it out in silent seclusion. All manner of events can bring us to this state. We may love where we are not loved; we may have a secret we cannot or dare not share; or we may have come to evaluate life in terms so at variance with those held by people we know that we seem to be in another world. For instance, if our friends and relations have an outlook based on material success and achievement, on the acquisition of wealth and power — and we no longer place much value on these things — there is no bridge of communication, and we seem alone. Without realizing it, some intellectually-gifted people isolate themselves by fending off anyone whose mind cannot rise to meet theirs. Conversely, manual workers often feel set apart when they live among the more highly educated.
In Britain, for example, interviewers have found among white-collar workers a keen sense of superiority to their manual-laboring fellows, though all were living cheek by jowl on the same housing estate. Far from seeking a philosophy of shared humanity and shared usefulness to the community, many were concerned only with maintaining their own position — to the extent of wishing to live in segregated manual/non-manual blocks and making sure their children did not mingle with those whose parents were lower in the social scale.
On the other hand, we come upon eccentrics who remove themselves from the common run altogether. They can be found, as one newspaper noted, "in every rural area, living harmless lives in sheds and caves and similar places." After seeing two old ladies whose home was such a shed, a Public Health Inspector commented: "The conversation was philosophical, with no lack of intelligence, no labored intervals. Their minds are clear on what they want of life, and rarely have I met two more contented people. . . . Is it really a worse life than living in a cellar in a London slum?"
Nor do all retired people endure an empty existence. Though their once-large families are reduced to "two of us" or "just myself," many remain completely in the swing of things. They may live by themselves but they never feel abandoned. Why is their case so different? If we investigate, we find in them a sort of endless river that shows itself in an ever-flowing and continuous interest in everyone, from the postman at their door to the shopkeepers from whom they buy their "little bits," and the children they wave at or talk to along their own street. For them "my family" has enlarged to take in all the people they meet each day; and it is this genuine affection for others, nothing more nor less, that gives them happiness.
Perhaps one way to transform old age into this blissful state is to keep aware of the family — yes, we must all do that, if we have one — but also to grow more aware of the larger family at our doorstep before we are left completely alone and find ourselves unwanted. So often families boast a little about being a tightly closed unit that hasn't much to do with the neighbors. They remark with a certain pride that apart from an occasional "Good morning" or "Good afternoon," they know nothing of their neighbors' business, life, and interests, of their trials and sorrows; nor do they wish to. Is it very surprising when the day of "all alone" comes to such independent folk that years of loneliness accompany it? We cannot for decades look upon our neighbors as ciphers or "as trees walking" and then, when we have sudden need of them, expect to find them knocking at the door of our silent house, eager to share the new life that is ours. Has not friendship been called "life's fairest furniture"? And what is friendship but an extension in volume of the loving interest we very naturally bestow on "our own"?
It is said that loneliness is merely a mental illusion and that the first necessity is to come to know what the mind inside oneself is like and "make friends with that." Is this the right approach? If mind and the various abilities related to it were all that mattered, then by directing the mind to the right channels the whole puzzle might easily be solved. But the ordinary experience of people we know has already taught us that there is more to the question than this. We meet individuals whose skills, academic or otherwise, may match our own exactly, but who shall say that because of this they are the ones we take to our hearts as friends? I may work with my hands and my friend with his head, or vice versa, yet if we both labor in the area of shared human experience, in the realm of the heart, then together we cross over a much wider, more universal bridge of understanding than is possible through mere common interests and talents.
Does not our answer lie here? As a human family we are diversified, but we are one. Our challenge is to try to act out this unity in our daily contacts with others, else we simply increase the pressure of alien, self-built walls of isolation. We so continuously and unconsciously set ourselves apart by what we have — in goods, in position, in talents — when in fact it is what we are and what we are becoming that really count. As we strive to remain aware of life's fundamental oneness, we begin to erect an out-going/in-coming bridge that will link human hearts in comradeship and mutual helpfulness. When each of us has become a bridge-builder in this spiritual sense, loneliness will be an obsolete word, identified only with our less happy, less understanding past.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2004/January 2005; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)