Robert Ferguson is the author of Alone in America: The Stories That Matter ($27.95, Harvard University Press)
If your closest companion is your pet, your television, or your computer, chances are you live alone, as do a fourth of all Americans today; that's roughly 75 million people in single occupancy. Of course, that astounding number conveys only frequency, not what "being alone" might actually mean.
It helps to recognize first that the companions just mentioned also explain why so many can now subsist alone. Technology with all of its contrivances supports a solitary life in a way that few could have managed before the age of refrigeration, washing machines, electricity, the telephone, central heating, antibiotics, mechanical transportation, video transmission, computerization and now instant messaging. Social factors also apply. The fragmentation in familial identity, geographical mobility, greater longevity, heightened belief in a right of privacy, sharper delineations between the generations are all relevant, and so, alas, are deeper pockets of poverty and, at a different level, a culture that loves pets now that work animals are a rarity in most American lives.
A second fact, uncannily similar, reveals that a fourth of Americans will also admit they are lonely when pressed to answer--but only in private. No one likes to say it despite a national literature full of isolated protagonists who usually win the day. Some hesitation may indeed come from these classic plot resolutions. When fictional heroes and heroines who are set apart triumph anyway, they gain our admiration, but they also seem to demand that loneliness accomplish more than itself. Between story and reality, a rampant individualism wants the ideal American to be self reliant on the path to success.
We must be careful here. Those troubled by loneliness are not the same 25 percent who live alone. As early as The Lonely Crowd in 1950, David Riesman demonstrated that a goodly number feel isolated with people all around them. Accordingly, if you are counting, it follows that many by themselves are happy with that state. Being alone can, in fact, fluctuate between loneliness and a sought solitude. We all need time by ourselves at some point. Differentiation from others is how one finds an identity.
Nonetheless, human beings are social animals. There is something vital in physical contact that we all need. Telecommunications present an obvious resource for lonely people, but it is rarely enough even with the new visual aid of skype; video enhanced instant messaging now attracts more than 663 million users. Even so, seeing is not the same as being there. In one of several unique postmodern annoyances, how many times have you overheard loud cell phoners identify the street or bus stop or building they have reached? These phoners are basically saying "I am a physical presence for you."
If we grant that time spent alone is a neutral state, a fulcrum or balance between loneliness and solitude, the question becomes "what am I alone for and how am I managing it?" We must then test the inner resources that we bring to the occasion or, often enough, to a permanent condition. How do we do this? The word "reflection" doesn't quite capture the quality required; nor does the popular concept of "meditation." Psychologists and sociologists talk not of an inner spirit but of an internal conversation. We all talk to ourselves, whether aloud or silently. Assessing the nature and even the tone of that internal dialogue--a dialogue that constantly makes choices--is not easy. Do you know what your own inner voice sounds like?
Many forms of literature are a resource in this regard because the troubled hero or heroine almost always turns inward to gain the recognition required to handle a crisis. Literature, after all, is about conflict. As Tolstoy famously opens Anna Karenina, "all happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The distinct problems in unhappiness, the specifics in disequilibrium, drive stories. The mundane quotidian--"like one another"--will not hold even a willing reader for long. To keep us interested, writers supply the mental processes of a protagonist in turmoil. We thereby hear an inner conversation and can learn something about our own from it.
There is a world of difference between choosing solitude and being left to oneself by circumstance, loss, catastrophe, or simple attrition. The real test comes in using our knowledge of the voluntary state to cope with an enforced condition. Conventional expertise urges renewed forms of togetherness when this happens, but the truth of American society lies in a loneliness that many endure without the options of outward escape. Young or old when forced into this condition, we must build ourselves from within--no mean feat in a consumer culture defined by secular change and material success.
When the club, the hobby, the home team, the television series, the family, the work place, and electronic connection no longer suffice, what do we do? As in fiction, we all lead a rounded life in some way, whether for good or ill. Isn't that what obituaries demand in a mantra of birth, activity, death, and progeny?
There is a better way. The price of mortality is also its gift. The ultimate task turns on learning what we have become in our own words. That is the job existence asks of us. When memories arise, they can be our best friends and sometimes our enemies, but they serve well only when organized against their naturally scattered presence. The greatest reward in literature consists in the magic of our own creation and in the unities that we all seek. Find the stories and the inner voices that matter to you. They can help you make your own.