Roger Ebert is quite an amazing man. He was the first film critic to win a Pullitzer prize, he has written more than 15 books and his film reviews are syndicated to hundreds of newspapers. Five years ago he lost his lower jaw to cancer (read about it here, in this Esquire article, or here at Wikipedia - which I found quite upsetting as it's quite detailed).
Since then, he hasn't been able to speak. That hasn't stopped him writing though, and I read his blog on the Chicago Times website more for the bits in between than for the film reviews themselves.
As someone without the ability to talk, he's perhaps uniquely qualified to discuss loneliness. Read the whole piece here, and be sure to check the comments too.
All the lonely people
Lonely people have a natural affinity for the internet. It's always there waiting, patient, flexible, suitable for every mood. But there are times when the net reminds me of the definition of a bore by Meyer the hairy economist, best friend of Travis McGee: "You know what a bore is, Travis. Someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with companionship."
What do lonely people desire? Companionship. Love. Recognition. Entertainment. Camaraderie. Distraction.
Encouragement. Change. Feedback. Someone once said the fundamental reason we get married is because have a universal human need for a witness. All of these are possibilities. But what all lonely people share is a desire not to be -- or at least not to feel -- alone.
You are there in the interstices of the web. I sense you. I know some of you. I have read more than 78,000 comments on this blog, and many of them have been from you. I know two readers who if possible would never leave their homes. I know more who cannot easily leave, because of illness or responsibilities. I don't know of any agoraphobics, but there probably are some. Just because you're afraid to go outside doesn't mean you're happy being inside.
On a blog people confess and reveal. Some don't sign their names, but what does a name mean on the internet anyway? They write to me, they write to each other, they link to blogs, and I read. They feel stranded within themselves. Some can't find romantic partners to interest them. Some have lost a great love and feel they will never love again. Others say they have a lot of sex but still feel empty. Some fear no one will ever be interested in them.
Reading these comments, looking through these blogs, I sometimes feel like Miss Lonelyhearts. That's the hero of Nathanael West's novel about a man who is given the job of writing a newspaper advice column under a pseudonym. Every day he receives messages from those in need, and has no help to offer them. He feels he would have to be Jesus to perform his job. He is powerless over the pain and loneliness in his own life.
I'm not setting myself above the fray. I'm right here in the middle, reading comments as if listening in on a national party line (I experience a slight dislocation when I realize how few of you have ever listened in on a party line, or even know what one is). There are comments here are on all sorts of things: Politics, literature, movies, art, health, God, the universe. Most of the comments are useful and literate, and many are elegantly written. "The best comments you are likely to find anywhere on the web," I've heard it said.
But why are you writing them? Don't you have anything else to do? Every day there are untold millions of comments, texts, and online interactions. Millions. And each one says, I am here and I extend my consciousness to there. There might have been a time when humans were content to sit and simply be, like the goat I saw yesterday sitting contently in a patch of sunshine at the Lincoln Park Zoo. That time was long ago. We want the news. We want to chatter and gossip. We want to say "I am alive" in a billion billion different ways. And now here is internet, providing such an easy, easy way to do that.
When I was a child the mailman came once a day. Now the mail arrives every moment. I used to believe it was preposterous that people could fall in love online. Now I see that all relationships are virtual, even those that take place in person. Whether we use our bodies or a keyboard, it all comes down to two minds crying out from their solitude.
The biological reason we fall in love may be to encourage reproduction. Yet why did nature provide homosexuality if that is the only purpose? Why do people marry with no prospects of children? Babies are not the only thing two people can create together. They can create a safe private world. They can create a reality that affirms their values. They can stand for something. They can find someone to laugh with, and confide in. Someone to hold them when they need to be held. A danger of the internet would be if we begin to meet those needs without feeling there has to be another person in the room.
I speak now about those who have a choice. Some people reading this don't have a choice. One woman who posted wonderful comments later revealed she was almost completely paralyzed. I think of her often, and think of her as reading. Others have disabling diseases. You already know how I'm screwed up. So, you get on with it, and you do what you can. The internet is a godsend.
But that doesn't describe most of you, who are lonely for what might be a matrix of psychological, social and situational reasons. I don't know you and can't explain you. I have no advice to offer. I'm assuming you are indeed lonely, but not medically depressed. Depression can be treated with medications and therapy. It also might help to find something -- anything -- to do that you can feel is useful.
But back to loneliness. I have to reveal a truth about myself: I've never felt particularly lonely. I was an only child. I came from a happy, stable home. The school bus dropped me off at 3, and my parents weren't home until after 5, but those two hours alone were treasure to me. I was a curious little boy. I always had something going.
If I yearned for something in those early years, it was a delicious yearning by proxy. I listened to the radio. I found how nostalgic I was for Old Cape Cod, how much I missed Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, oh my darling. The notes of "Twilight Time" to this moment make it late dusk on a chilly autumn afternoon, and I am on the floor caressing my dog and feeling we are together...at last...at twilight time. But it must be the instrumental version by The Three Suns.
When I spent a year in Cape Town, half a world away from everyone and everything I knew, I wasn't lonely for a moment. I was enveloped in the pleasure of exile. I've always enjoyed fiction about exile; give me a novel that starts with someone alone in a room in a strange city, and I perk up. I identify with the meaning given to "nostalgia" by Tarkovsky, which in one Russian sense means a longing for one's home so sweet and sharp one might almost leave home in order to feel it.
I've never understood this bittersweet narcissism within myself. I love to wander lonely streets in unknown cities. To find a cafe and order a coffee and think to myself -- here I am, known to no one, drinking my coffee and reading my paper. To sit somewhere just barely out of the rain, and declare that my fortress. I think of myself in the third person: Who is he? What is his mystery? I have explained before how I'm attracted to anonymous formica restaurants where I can read my book and look forward to rice pudding for desert. To leave that warm place and enter the dark city is a strange pleasure. Nostalgia perhaps.
For many years I was an alcoholic, and I never felt lonely then. I could feel sick, I could feel despair, but I could never feel lonely. A drink would lift me up. I was never a morose drunk. Alcohol makes you feel better and then makes you feel worse and then remorselessly very bad indeed, but then alcohol will make you feel better again. It is the cure for the dog that bit you, and how easily you forget it is also the dog. Good Doctor Schlichter told me, "It is the one relationship you have learned to count on, with the bottle."
Thank God I found sobriety. I could sustain myself with my work, my reading, the movies, my friends. And walking, walking, walking. Of all the purposes of education, I think the most useful is this: It prepares you to keep yourself entertained. It gives you a better chance of an interesting job. Those who stare at the TV for hours might as well be sitting on a stone under a tree in a primeval village; indeed, that might offer more interest and variety. I can't remember the last time I felt bored. I can't eat, drink or talk, and yet I have so many other resources to keep myself entertained. I think I must be a case study.
For nearly 20 years I have been happily married to Chaz, and before that there were other kind women in my life. But I don't believe I ever dated to fight off loneliness. I thought of myself as self-contained. I was one-stop shopping. I was happy one summer to rent a car and drive alone from the Lake District up through Scotland, finding my way from one bed and breakfast to another. I always had a good book going, I sketched, I talked to strangers, I wandered, but not lonely as a cloud.
A few weeks ago, something happened. Chaz needed emergency surgery. There were two nights when I was alone and she was in the hospital, just as there were months when she was alone and I was in the hospital. And in the middle of the night a great fear enveloped me. If "anything happened" (as they say), I would be so terribly, terribly alone, and sad. I would miss her so much. This feeling came over me in a wave. I pulled the covers tighter around me. Then I would know what loneliness was.
An illumination came into my mind, and with it the words of a song that has haunted me: Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got, till it's gone? Perhaps I wasn't lonely before because I didn't have it, so it couldn't be gone.