Modern Loneliness Is Like Nothing That Has Come Before

Image via Pixabay

Paris Je T’aime is a good movie overall, but the best part is the end. The 2006 film is unusually structured. There is no overarching plot, rather a series short stories all set in various neighborhoods around Paris. Some are sad, some surreal. All are worth seeing.

The last tells the story of an American woman’s first trip to Paris. The narrative unfolds in a voice over. Underneath shots of the actress Margo Martindale wandering around the city, she reads an essay obviously written for her character’s French class back in Denver.

You can see the clip below:

Carol, Martindale’s character, reveals that she had always wanted to visit Paris, that this trip was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. She began taking French two years previously in order to prepare.

Carol is hopelessly out of place in Paris. Her frumpy dress and cheesy hairstyle mark her as a fashion-oblivious American in the chic neighborhoods of the world’s most romantic city. In her essay, Carol tells us both her parents have died, and that she has no family.

In one scene, set atop a building overlooking the Parisian skyline, Carol utters her most affecting lines. Looking out across the city, she says, “I wanted to say to someone ‘Isn’t that beautiful’, but there was no one there”, and “I thought of my ex-boyfriend Dave, if he would have enjoyed this trip, but then I felt a little stupid because we’ve not spoken for eleven years, and now he’s married with three children.”

This confession moves us. We feel the sadness of going more than a decade without belonging to someone. We feel Carol’s displacement, her estrangement. We know that even rare and breathtaking moments can be emptied of their wonder by experiencing them alone.

We identify with Carol not just because she is a person, but also because she is a modern person, without family, without faith, without community, identity or belonging. Like all modern people, she attempts to find solace from her losses in experience. She fulfills her dream of seeing Paris. She climbs to a high spot, looks out across the surrounding settlement and finds that something is missing. Rather than being overcome by the glory of the city, her mind rolls back to the last time she felt loved. We’ve all been there. The modern world is a machine and its output is millions upon millions of lonely Carols.

All The Lonely People

I touched on this theme a few weeks ago in my discussion with Patrick Deneen of his book, “Why Liberalism Failed.” The idea resurfaced again when Christine Emba published a piece in the Washington Post called “Liberalism is Loneliness.”

Emba writes:

“Liberalism is loneliness. The state isn’t our sibling; the market won’t be our mate. And the more either the right or left’s solutions attempt to fill in the gaps — “more markets, for you to attempt to buy back what has been destroyed! More regulations, to protect you when you can’t!” — the more obvious it becomes that the entire concept is flawed. The institution of liberalism is caving in on itself, and we each individually feel the crush.”

Emba sees that something in the modern predicament is exceptional. People have always been lonely. Certainly, people have always been disappointed in love. But, modern people experience these perennial problems in a unique way. Only for us do these problems of connection happen in a context that reinforces and normalizes them. Only we experience the pain of loneliness within a social context that tells us that the casualness with which we sever ties to others is, if not a positive good, just the cost of doing business.

In the past, people were lonely because those they loved were absent, or because they were fending for themselves among strangers. Their loneliness was situational, and therefore could be mingled with a reasonable hope that, given the flow of history, it would end when circumstances again shifted. The solution to loneliness: settlement in a place and among people whom we recognize as being our own, could, at that point, still be accessed.

It’s Different This Time

In our time, this solution is exceedingly rare.  The processes and customs by which such settlements are created have been largely destroyed. They have been replaced by social processes that aim only at the fulfillment of individual desire. The deep structures of modern life are all oriented toward serving the atomized, liberated individual. The result is a loneliness that, rather than being merely situational, is structural, woven into the texture of the way we live.

Not only is modern loneliness pervasive, we must face it with few resources. In the past, a woman who suffered a disappointment in romantic affairs could find consolation in friends, her mother and aunts, grandmothers and cousins. She could avail herself of the promises of faith. She could rest assured that her place in the community need not suffer because a boy had moved on.

Like Carol, today’s woman or man in a similar spot has no consolations beyond perhaps a few superficial playmates offering equally superficial diversions. Modern people treat affairs of the heart casually, in part, because we dare not do otherwise. To take every hook-up seriously would hurt far too much.  We know too that the resulting pain would be unwelcome because it serves as a reminder that the human heart is not entirely elastic and its longings not all satiable by a drunken groping in the dark.

The proper modern attitude toward such things is a cultivated aloofness moving at a pace fast enough to quash any impulse to real reflection. Moderns squirm when Carol admits to thinking of Dave to whom she has not spoken in more than a decade. Her failure to recognize that this kind of deep attachment is a mark of low status makes them uncomfortable. They snicker at her while trying not to acknowledge that they are her. No wonder everyone’s always on his phone.

Our Possible Future

Our situation is even worse than Emba implies. To escape will require sacrifice. In the abstract, this means sacrificing the idea that the purpose of life is the gratification of individual desire. In the concrete, it may mean giving up any number of things we want: a job in a far away city, our cynicism, our gadgets, an attractive stranger. The list is long.

The hope of return, though, is great. Through the adoption of what are now counter-cultural attitudes that value settlement over disconnection, we might have a chance to recoup our losses. If we can’t achieve this at the cultural level, surely we can achieve some measure of success in our personal lives. If we are willing to make such sacrifices now, we may find that when, in the days to come, we witness something remarkable, a sunset, say, or our grandchildren, and exclaim “Isn’t that beautiful”,  someone will be there after all.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Speak Your Truth

    As long as you keep that handy smartphone in your pocket, you’ll never really feel the full gravity of your loneliness — that aches for your attention, understanding, and resolve.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I watched the clip of Paris, je t’aime. For me, much of its humor comes from the poor accent with which the narrative is recited. I do not agree that her “deep attachment” to Dave “is a mark of low status”. Nor do I agree that viewers “snicker at her while trying not to acknowledge that they are her”. I think most viewers are not like her, but can–and should–empathize with her.

    Carol is middle aged, and, although lacking in self-awareness to a comical extent, she is aware that she is unlikely to have another relationship like she had with Dave. She says that her mother and her sister have died, but that she has “many friends and two wonderful dogs”. One gets the sense, though, that she has no close friends–certainly no one close enough to want to experience Paris with her. She says that she had considered going there with a tour group, but did not because she is “a very independent person”. If she had gone with a group, maybe she would have had someone with whom she could share her feelings when she saw Paris from atop a skyscraper. Note, though: During all of the other scenes, in which she was walking alone, sitting alone, and eating alone, did it ever seem as if she were feeling lonely? I don’t think so. In the last scene, in which she sits alone in a park, hearing and seeing other people around her, she says that she felt “alive”. “Yes, alive.”

    I do not understand why someone would think that “Liberalism is Loneliness”. Does liberalism cause loneliness? If so, how? Did anyone think “the state” could be “our sibling”, or that “the market” would be “our mate”? Did anyone think that “markets” and “regulations” would prevent people from feeling lonely?

    Sometime in the last several years I heard a woman from Brazil talking about a difference between Brazilian culture and American culture. She said that in Brazil, familial relationships are far more important than they are here. I think that, generally speaking, we Americans prefer not to have such close relationships with our relatives, i.e. share so much of our lives with them.

    There is more than one cause of loneliness, and it is not within everyone’s power not to feel lonely.

  • RustbeltRick

    It would help if terms were defined a little more. The hot-button word “liberalism”, for example. There are American liberals, and then there is neo-liberalism. Two very different things. Has neo-liberalism left the individual isolated, lonely and hopeless? Many would suggest that that is indeed the case. And frankly, I think liberals/progressives are better able to address the symptoms (if not the causes) of loneliness than the Right.

  • disqus_ZBXJDbYJHe

    “Liberalism is loneliness.”

    Loneliness cuts across all religious, political, social, economic, racial, ethnic, and sexual lines. You have many conservative white males from ages 18 to 45 committing suicide because their economic way of life has been undercut by the wealthy class for the last 38 years.

  • Ann Raven

    The saddest part, for me, in PARIS, JE T’AIME is the section about the young mother who has to leave her own baby in a low-cost child care center where there are many other babies in cheap crips and no caretakers in sight. This mom deposits her child in a crib and takes the train to a ritzy part of town where she cuddles, feeds and sings to someone else’s baby all day, returning after dark to pick up her own baby. I can’t watch this again. It makes me terribly depressed to know that this is really happening, most places in the world.

  • Peter Borgwardt

    Yes, neo-liberalism seems to me a hijacking of the word liberal. It seems to be the very opposite of the liberalism brought into America by FDR. It sounds like what used to be called conservatism. Definition from Wikipedia:
    Neoliberalism or neo-liberalism[1] refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism.[2]:7 Those ideas include economic liberalization policies such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade[3] and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society.[11] These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.[12][13]

  • Linguagroover

    I’m rather sceptical about the whole thesis: another attempt to suggest there is something exceptionally harsh psychologically about our technologically advanced times compared with earlier (imagined) eras. Is someone who has lived in a postwar Western liberal democracy as an office worker more lonely than, say, a forebear 600 or so years ago who survived the Black Death while low down the pecking order as a serf in a feudal hierarchy? Only by choice, surely.

  • Dean is really on to something extremely important in this posting on structural loneliness. I would cast it slightly different, however. We humans have a dual desire to stand out from the crowd, and also to tuck ourselves in to the protective shell of the group (developmental psychology is largely converging around this basic insight originally found in attachment theory.) Standing out from the group risks loneliness, demanding more from the individual most can bear. Tucking too tightly into the group risks loss of one’s gifts as an individual, that is, of never really having lived at all. A viable society allows people avenues both for standing out as an individual and for tucking in to the shared meanings of the group. Post-Enlightenment Western societies have tended to lean toward exultation of individualism, and hence have had to deal with the periodic backlash of extreme ‘group think’ in the form of fascism. Neo-liberal ideology not only exults the ‘rugged individual’ in the competition of ‘all-life-as-market,’ but increasingly narrows the range of individual ‘achievement’ worthy of exultation (the ‘.0001 %,’ the Victoria Secret beauty standard, the Ivy-League-only education myth, etc.) that leaves an increasingly large segment of the society in the position of being ‘permanent losers.’ This is not a signal of a healthy society in the least, and it is hardly a wonder that structural loneliness, in which individuals doubt their place of social achievement at the same time that places to tuck in to the communal protective shell are diminished, devalued and commodified, has risen as a kind of social disease (or more accurately, as a visible symptom of social disease.) We human beings (being acutely aware of our mortal condition and inevitably impending death) are meaning-hungry creatures. We need to feel that our existence on this planet, short as it is, is enveloped in a pool of transcending purpose and ‘higher significance.” This is one of the main ways we are able to cope with the anxiety of mortality awareness. The pageant of stories, rituals and mores that feed us the assurance that our lives are enveloped in a pool of transcending purpose and higher significance is essentially what we call ‘culture.’ The cultures of modernity are increasingly less successful in communicating this message to us for some very important reasons. A main one is high speed travel and communications. We no longer live in ‘a culture’ with a way of living shared by everyone with whom we have contact. We live in a daily bombardment of ‘cultures,’ in which it is simply unavoidable to recognize that there are many different ‘stories, rituals and mores’ each of which is aimed at the same thing, assuring us that we are enveloped in a pool of transcendent purpose and higher significance. The problem with this meaning-smorgasbord is that these many answers to our predicament are often often directly contradictory, causing us to have inevitable doubts on one hand about whether ours is, in fact, the right one. And, on the other hand, the very cacophony of basically equally plausible answers to our basic human dilemma (mortality awareness) tends to expose the fundamentally ‘fictional’ (humanly constructed) nature of any and all of the cultural narratives of transcending purpose and meaning in the first place (Toto has pulled back the curtain exposing the Great Wizard pulling the levers behind it). We can react to this by forcefully shutting our ears (the ‘sectarian segregationist’ option) or by forcefully shutting their mouths (the censorious, imperialist conversionist, and ultimately annihilationist option). Or we can endeavor to accept our human situation as it is, seeking to construct new stories, rituals and mores of transcending purpose and human significance rooted in inclusiveness rather than exclusion, on embracing the Truth of the Other as an opportunity for learning and expansion of our own horizons, rather than always habitually encountering the Truth of the Other as a source of threat, suspicion and animosity. The former has been our habitual move, probably reinforced as the survival strategy of least energy resistance over generation upon generation species selection. But we are not simply passive adapters in the evolutionary process (the very element, human intelligence, that has been our main survival mechanism, and ironically created the problem of mortality awareness in the first place, has freed us from the role of only passive adaptation.) Our continued survival may largely depend on learning to take conscious control of how we construct and communicate the message of our cultural pools of meaning and transcending purpose for our lives. Religion is, of course, one of the very central encapsulations in any cultural connecting to our human need for transcendent meaning and the maintenance of plausibility for the stories, rituals and mores that undergird our shared sense of meaning and value. My challenge to the evangelicals on this list, as well as all of us, is to consider the special responsibilities we who tell religious stories have for helping our species move from habitual mutual animosity toward stories, rituals and mores that embrace each other in spite of, nay BECAUSE OF our many differences and diversities.

  • Dean

    Great comment.

  • If you have access to interlibrary services, you might be interested in the article, by Ernest Becker (1974).The spectrum of loneliness. Humanitas 10:237-246. In this article, Becker explores seven gradations of loneliness, which lead up to the loneliness of individuation. It is really quite an amazing piece of writing, I think. If you don’t have access to it, look up my email address (social work faculty, illinois state university) and I will send you an e-copy.

  • Dean

    Thanks a lot.

  • YellowBird

    carol reminds me of my nana & my aunty and they were sweet, gentle, genuine people always trying to do their best
    looking stylish is all very nice but its qualities of the heart that make a person beautiful…
    the real problem here is that most of the time, the rest of us are paying way too much attention to the hair.