It will come as no surprise that single people are occasionally lonely. They go about their lives happy and content then seemingly out of nowhere they’re overwhelmed by the lack of a sense of connectedness that everyone else seems to share but that the solo can only observe. Such moments are rare and unpredictable, so much so that it makes sense to let you know when they are least likely to occur.
Case in point: long walks on the beach, those staples of dot com dating sites and other lonely-hearts scams. This month I have the great good fortune to be holed up on Cape Cod. The crowds are pretty much gone, and the weather is gorgeous. The National Seashore is still home to an astonishing variety of birds, and one can walk and walk along the beach with only their negligent companionship. Pure bliss. To be honest, I don’t want any other company: I walk at my own pace, skip a stone when I want to, slip a shell in my pocket without worrying about having to share, and decide for myself when I’ve walked my fill.
Case in point: dinner for one at a swanky restaurant. I travel a fair amount, and I look forward to new dining experiences. A club sandwich and cold room-service fries are not for me. Dining alone can be a sublime experience. I secure I reservation and specify the kind of table I want, dress up, show up on time, and order a drink—gin martini,very dry, very cold, up with olives. As I sip my drink, I read a book or magazine; I do not feel obliged to make friends with the wait staff, but I do pay attention to their recommendations and I do tip generously. If there are sweetbreads or fois gras on the menu, I order them (yes, sometimes both at the same meal!) and luxuriate not only in their unctuous, decadent lusciousness, but also in absence of lectures about corpulent geese or askance looks at the offal on my plate. When that plate arrives, I set aside whatever I’m reading and concentrate on the food, wholly. It may be that I’m a pisspoor multi-tasker, but I find that when I am dining out alone the meal becomes the focus of my attention and I can experience and appreciate its nuances far better than if every bite is punctuated with conversation. I have wine with dinner, and I end with coffee and dessert.
Final case in point: concerts. I want to connect with the performer or performers. I want to lose myself in the music. I do not want to listen to sotto voce real-time critiques or feel obliged to offer them myself.
So, when do I feel the chill of loneliness? When I’m smacked upside the head by “experts” who single out loners in their solitude as deviants.
A terrible crime was committed in New Hampshire last week: a pack of rabid boys killed a woman in her home and nearly killed her young daughter. The attack was so horrific that I’ll bet the ink is drying now on the contracts for the made-for-tv treatment of the tragedy. The setting was bucolic, the innocent victims believing themselves safe in their home, the homicidal bipedal wolverines from good families. And yet they took their knives and hacked to the death a mother and chopped away at a child.
As the news of this murder and attempted murder broke, I braced myself for the inevitable, and I didn’t have long to wait:
“Across the country, similar homicides have been carried out by teenage males who are sad and lonely”: Boston Globe, October 12. The story continues: “‘A strong sense of community is wonderful if you happen to be accepted,’ [Jack] Levin [Irving and Betty Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University] said. ‘But if you are regarded as an outsider, you may feel profoundly rejected . . . Their peer group is the only game in town. If they are rejected, they have nowhere else to go.’”
Lonely and nowhere to go. There you have it…the recipe for murder. The expert says so. Never mind that the four thugs arrested for this crime were not friendless, solitary outcasts (read the reports in the Boston Herald and the Manchester Union-Leader and you find that to the contrary they had many friends), and never mind that least one of them abandoned his medication for depression. And ignore the fact that several of them were obsessed with knives. No, the salient fact here is that they were “lonely.” So loneliness and loneliness alone, it seems, is what drove them to kill and maim two strangers.
I don’t know what turns teenage boys into killers, but I am fairly confident that if every kid whoever felt rejected by his friends, misunderstood by his parents, and—horror of horrors—lonely picked up a weapon and used it, there’d be a dearth of victims in short order. We’d all be dead.
Let me put this as simply as I can:
1) Being a loner does not mean an individual longs for companionship.
2) Being alone and being lonely are not one and the same.
3) “Sad” and “lonely” are not synonyms.
4) Being lonely is not a crime, nor does it lead to crime. All humans experience loneliness from time to time.
I am well aware that I maybe treading a fine rhetorical line here, so I am trying to sort out its threads as precisely as I can. It comes down to this, I think: every time a deranged or demonic teenage boy commits a heinous crime, some egghead (alone in his Ivory Tower, no doubt!) will explain away the behavior by writing it off to “loneliness.” The perp will inevitably be described as a “loner,” and the conflation of the two terms will be well cemented. And every time this happens, those of us who prefer our solitude, and accept our rare bouts of consequential loneliness for the ephemeral moments they are, feel just a little more marginalized, just a little bit more misunderstood. Do we then turn to violence? No. We read a little Wordsworth, have a spot of single malt, and take a long walk on the beach.