By Sara Evans
For weeks, a bright-green advertisement for Meals on Wheels in The New Yorker delivered the bad news: Social Isolation is as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness. It is toxic, pernicious, erosive. Popular and academic publications are exploding with articles about the current epidemic. Experts all over the world are trying to figure out its root causes and possible antidotes. In The New York Times Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge note that “smartphone access and internet use increased in lock-step with teenage loneliness.”
Perhaps the internet is the cause. Perhaps this has been made worse by the pandemic or by watching our home planet disintegrate and our institutions erode. Or perhaps loneliness is integral to the human condition, and exacerbated by all these factors.
Loneliness is nothing new. We have many languages for it. Perhaps the most compelling are the visual images.
In the 19th century, we romanticized the solitary individual. The German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich created the beautiful “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” which appears to have inspired Benedict Cumberbatch’s more recent portrayal of an emotionally isolated Sherlock Holmes.
In that same era, the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi painted image after image of women alone in monochromatic rooms, unsettling portraits of a uniquely feminine form of loneliness.
The disturbing work of Edvard Munch, whose art bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, depicts a Scandinavian loneliness that is often on the verge of panic. Then, too, we are all familiar with Edward Hopper who later captured solitary souls in New York’s automats and diners.
The literature of loneliness is vast: The Well of Loneliness, The Stranger, The Little Prince, The Bell Jar, The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Lonely Crowd. There are the heartbreakingly lonely diaries of Virginia Woolf; and Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe. Each era has its own canon, its own take on the human condition that is loneliness.
There are countless pop songs that tell us, in no uncertain terms, “I’m So Lonely I Could Die,” and all those classical fugues and adagios that describe and reinforce feelings of loneliness. As if we needed reinforcement.
But then, there is solitude. Solitude is different. It is not the other side of the loneliness coin. It is often optional and for some of us, necessary, something we choose, a condition many of us crave.
I have been a caregiver for the past few years. There were countless times when I craved solitude. I needed it. I rarely found it. As a writer who spends inordinate amounts of time inside my own head, solitude was my oxygen. I felt trapped and cornered by my husband’s endless needs and by the ruthless demands that caregiving imposes, as he battled a long-term illness.
But now, he is no longer here, and I often find myself choking with loneliness. To borrow Ann Fadiman’s title, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.
David was the truest of Capricorns, a lover of ancient places. When we met in Greece, he introduced me to Delphi, to Corinth, to Mycenae and the Parthenon. We explored Iron Age hill forts in Ireland, ruined abbeys in Yorkshire, and castles and remote cairns in the western part of his native Wales. He shared his delight and fascination with England’s cathedrals and treasure houses, with Stonehenge and Avebury. We traveled to the pyramids in Oaxaca, monasteries in Tuscany, chateaux in the Loire Valley, Bronze-age settlements in the west of Spain and Hadrian’s Palace and the Coliseum in Rome. An historian, he proved an excellent traveling companion.
I, in turn, shared my world with him—the wonders of New York City, with its cornucopia of art, theater and music; the beautiful and immensely varied landscape of the East Coast; the trials and pleasures that come with being a gardener and a homekeeper. Together, we also experienced the alchemical magic of raising two children and watching them thrive as adults.
These days, I find myself warily negotiating the narrow pathway that winds its way between loneliness and solitude. My life is different now, without him. Unmoored from the structure that caregiving imposes, I am slowly learning how to mark my days. Along with the comforts of family, friends and nature, I have come to rely on the company of books. Reading has given me a deep sense of companionship.
In the past few months, I have delved into the challenging terrain of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, learning difficult truths about race in America and my own unconscious assumptions. Madeline Miller’s exquisite Circe, plunged me deeply into the world of ancient Greece. Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us, an antic, picaresque novel about the peregrinations of an American family, provided comic relief. And I found emotional solace in Elaine Pagels’ eloquent memoir, Why Religion? exploring how belief can grow out of loss.
But of all the books that have spoken to me during this difficult time, Joshua Henkin’s elegiac novel, Morningside Heights, has been the most eloquent and by far, the most valuable It has helped me to understand where I am and where I have been.
Henkin is hardly breaking new ground with his finely tuned portrait of domestic loneliness, and the way one family deals with the cascade of problems stemming from dementia. We’ve had a wealth of films, books and plays about this devastating diagnosis. Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant and disturbing The Father, Away from Her, Iris, and Still Alice. Such novels as Elizabeth is Missing and We Are Not Ourselves do a fine job of describing the situation.
Yet, having recently cared for a brilliant spouse who was increasingly absent, I can tell you that Henkin’s novel cuts to the core. Here he unravels the marriage of Pru Steiner and Spence Robin. Spence is a brilliant and much lauded professor of Shakespearean literature at Columbia University. The couple live in New York City’s Morningside Heights neighborhood and Henkin meticulously documents Spence’s gradual, inevitable decline. He falls asleep reading, he cannot complete the book he is working on, he becomes suspicious, then paranoid. He fails to remember birthdays. There are flashes of clarity, when Pru’s hopes are raised. There is the attempt to forestall the inevitable by enrolling Spence in a “Hail-Mary” medical trial. But he just forgets and forgets and forgets.
All the while, Pru rationalizes, lies to herself, and is somewhat in denial about what is happening to her, their family, and to their daily lives. Henkin describes awkward social encounters and Pru’s own increasing sense of social isolation.
Living with a partner with dementia is perhaps the most difficult and poignant form of loneliness anyone can experience. Particularly excruciating is Henkin’s description of Spence and Pru’s final attempt at intimacy. “It wouldn’t happen. There was no use.”
In a recent interview, Henkin told me, “People are afraid of dementia. They are uncertain, they don’t know how to deal with it. So they tend to avoid those who have it. It becomes very isolating, both for the person who has it and for that person’s partner. The one you know and love is the same but different, there but not there.“
Family and friends, books and films, all are analgesic. But in the end, the antidote for loneliness may be the recovery of solitude. The stillness at the center of our lives. The Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz said that if you can bear loneliness, and meet it consciously, without running away from it, it then turns into solitude—a much more rewarding place that fuels a relationship and feeds our creativity. Those moments bring me back to David once again.
Eventually, one starts to remember the funny lines, the good stuff, the shared joys and sorrows, the journey taken together. Rilke famously reminds us, “Love consists in this: That two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” Agape, caritas, eros—it is love that gets us through.
Sara Evans is a lifelong New Yorker and the East Coast editor of Reinventing Home. She has written about culture, travel, and the arts for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, Parents, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, Art of the Times and Martha Stewart Living.