[In a culture which prizes self-reliance and the competitive instinct many people find it difficult to admit emotional need to others or to themselves. Loneliness and its resultant insecurity probably creates the greatest emotional need known to human nature, and its sufferers are legion. But it’s hard to confess the fact of personal loneliness without first rationalizing it so as to make it palatable to one’s pride, and this step often prevents one from fully acknowledging one’s helplessness in the face of circumstance. But there is another reason why the cause of emotional pain, such as loneliness, seems to elude us, and New York based writer and feminist Vivian Gornick seems to have seen into the nature of the problem in her arresting 1996 piece The Solace of Going Solo. It is the sheer ordinariness of the cause that hides it from view. However difficult it may be to remove, the cause itself is almost too simple and self-evident to understand. The mind, with its habit of analysis, is always looking for something more complicated and secret, and hoping that when it is found our troubles will be over. Emotional troubles, however, tend to be recurrent. So when their cause is simple, if we could only see the simplicity and absorb that information permanently, at least then we would be delivered from the futile and demoralizing habit of analysing our negative emotions endlessly.]
I looked around then, at my life, and I saw that I had not learned to live alone at all. What I had learned to do was strategize: to lie down until the pain passed, to evade, to get by. I wasn’t drowning, but I wasn’t swimming either. I was floating on my back, far from shore, waiting to be saved.
Looking closely at a condition that hadn’t been reviewed in years, I saw that once again the thing was being named; the thing I knew and had forgotten times without number; the thing that each time I name I make more my own, but each time I forget makes me lose ground. I found myself remembering the time long ago when I had first understood the thing I would always forget. It was also the day I understood why I walk, why I am a walker in the city. The memory materialized so powerfully that suddenly the day was standing before me.
I had been wandering around the apartment for hours, avoiding the desk. Couldn’t think, couldn’t write. My head filling up with fog, mist, cotton wool, dry ice; the fog rolling in through the window tops. The usual. The daily experience. The condition I struggle with from nine in the morning on, fighting to occupy a small clear space in my head until two or three in the afternoon when I desert the effort, feeling empty and defeated and as if I haven’t heard the sound of a human voice in a thousand years.
That afternoon I had an appointment uptown, at an address three miles from my house, and on impulse I decided to walk. When I hit the street it was as though I’d emerged from a cave into the light. Everything I saw—shops, lights, cars, people—looked interesting to me. I took a deep breath and felt my lungs swell. Then I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in years. The exhilaration of the unexpected encounter! My stride lengthened. I got where I was going, did what I’d gone to do, and decided to walk back. When I got home I saw that the bad feeling had washed out of me. The walk had purged me.
I realized then how ordinary my depression was. Ordinary and predictable, ordinary and daily. Daily depression, that’s all it was. I saw, as though for the first time, that daily depression eats energy. Without energy inner life evaporates; without inner life there is no animation; without animation there is no work. A life in thrall to daily depression is doomed to mediocrity.
In the same moment I saw that this was loneliness, the thing itself. Loneliness was the evaporation of inner life. Loneliness was me cut off from myself. Loneliness was the thing nothing out there could cure.
The depression was, I knew, rooted in a grievance that was old, older than love, older than marriage, older than friendship or politics. The grievance was my dear friend, my close friend. I have given up many others over the years, but not this one, never this one. This one, I saw, had been given the run of the house.
I knew enough to know that I would not hold on to what I was now seeing: that something in me would refuse to absorb the information. I would forget. I would not take it in. I would be overwhelmed again. Insight alone could not save me. I’d have to clear out each day anew. Walking had purged me, washed me clean, but only for that day. I was condemned to walk.
More important, I was condemned to live with what I could not take in.
We all are. Those of us who live alone; treading water; waiting for a pardon; clinging to the most educated discontent in history.