All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

This is going to be a fragmentary post because my thinking on it is still disconnected. Sometimes I get thoughts and words stuck in my head and blog to get them out; if I’m lucky, the fragments amount to more than self-indulgent navel-gazing, and make sense to someone else reading them. (In other words: Probable navel-gazing ahead. You’ve been warned.)

I’ve been thinking about loneliness a lot lately. Not long ago I realized that my joy in all things aesthetic depends on my being able to experience them with other people who also care about them. For better or worse, I’ve always bonded most closely with people when we can talk about books or art or music or theater or film, and lately I’ve really been missing that. The great thing about my trip this summer was the superabundance of both beauty — landscape, art museums, architecture, Mozart masses, amazing city streets — and good friends, and the elusive sense of being completely at ease in said friends’ company. But it also reminded me of what’s been absent from my everyday life.

I think of that 2006 study that suggested that Americans have fewer confidants than they used to. The findings have been disputed somewhat. But it rang true when I first read about it, and it rings even truer now.

(Several people have told me recently that New Englanders aren’t all that friendly. Neighbors don’t know each other, they say; it’s hard to form deep friendships. I hope that’s not true; but, though I’ve made a few friends since I moved here, there’s nothing like the network I had in grad school, or even my smaller circle of friends in Philadelphia. My closest friends all live at least a hundred miles away.)

It’s hard to separate all this from the general malaise of right now: the worry about whether we’re ever going to pull out of this recession, the grim collective mood, the outbursts of panic-fueled bigotry, the lines from Yeats’s “The Second Coming” popping unbidden into my head at odd intervals. Laura at Apt. 11D posted a particularly vivid account of this state of mind: anger combined with the increasing awareness of social networks fraying, and then fraying some more.

I want to do something to improve the lot of all us lonely people (cue “Eleanor Rigby“), even though I know, realistically, one person can’t do very much. But that’s part of the problem. I’m feeling rather acutely like just one person at the moment. How many other people out there are feeling like just one person in a world of acquaintances and strangers, I wonder?

And what is one to do?

At any rate, if you’ve read this far, Reader, thank you for listening.

7 Responses to “All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”

  1. Jill Smith says:

    Being a native New Englander who moved away and then returned, I’ve thought a lot about this problem and I have at least the beginnings of a theory about it.
    I have a hard time separating stage of life from locale – in other words, in grad school there are lots of people looking to socialize because everyone is transient. The same is true for geographic regions that contain higher percentages of transient people.
    But as you get older, one’s friendships tend to be more settled. You’ve chosen your friends and new ones don’t necessarily happen as easily or as often.
    And if we look at New England as a whole, it is (especially compared to someplace like DC where I live now) incredibly non-transient. Which means that most adults have already chosen their friends. Their lives are settled. When I moved back to New England for a while (not to my old home town, but a different area), I found my social life was restricted to my family and my husband’s family and a couple of old friends. Not because anyone was unfriendly – but because it just never occurred to them to add to their circle of friends. That addition had happened when they were younger. They were done.

  2. Amanda says:

    Interesting. That makes a lot of sense, actually. It probably says as much about my highly transient career (grad school, two years here, two years there, two years yon) as it does about New England.

  3. Jill Smith says:

    It may also be total balderdash. But I think there’s at least some truth to it.
    I also think some people from outside New England mistake reserve for unfriendliness. And they’re not at all the same thing. But when you mix reserve with a lack of sociability, it can look like unfriendliness.

  4. dale says:

    I’ve never regained anything like the community I had as a grad student, I know that.

  5. susan says:

    I’ve noticed that it’s generally taken me longer to make friends in my post-grad school experiences–but as others have noted, in moving away to college and moving away to grad school, I moved into large groups of people where everyone needed to create new networks. When I moved to the midwest, for my first tenure-line job, I found it very slow going making friends. Even my work friendships tended to be one person at a time, and it took 11 years–and a child–before I ended up with more of a network of friends. Here in my still-feeling-new city, I moved with a kid about to enter kindergarten, and that has facilitated a certain kind of friendship formation. I’ve met a lot of other new-here folks that way. But figuring out how to meet people here except through my kid has been trickier. All of which is to say, I’m nodding as I read.

  6. Mike says:

    I’ve had much the same experience in my first job after grad school, and it’s been with an institution remarkable for how outgoing and friendly and welcoming it is. The folks here are very good at being friendly, but they’re best at being friendly with couples and married folk, and I struggled hard as a single person my first few years. I wonder if grad school with its instant-friends network spoiled me somewhat, but I also know my status made it harder for me to find friends — which is a strange and difficult thing.

  7. Amanda says:

    Mike, I’ve noticed the same thing (with couples’ socializing patterns, that is) in some of the places I’ve lived. It’s as if people think it’s bad luck to have an odd number of people at dinner, or something.
    The more I think about it, the more I think our notions of what constitutes community and social life are profoundly screwed up.