What keeps me up at night

It’s not just worrying about things. I get roused out of sleep by new ideas, too. And I don’t really mind that. I wish I got more sleep, but I would hate to miss out on the ideas.

I’m better about worrying about things than I used to be. During the time my wife, Marilyn, was experiencing so much pain as a result of her cancer, I learned to be emotionally alert to her situation on the one hand and to be physically disconnected from it on the other. “Be a body,” I would say to myself, and manage to rest enough that I could do all the things for her that I needed to do the next day. That was how I learned that emotional awareness of a loved one’s pain does not require the physical tension that wears your body out.  They are two things; not one thing, as I first experienced them.

I’m not as good at that as I was back then. I think I could get better at it again if I practiced, but it is hard to want to practice and I am very grateful that circumstances have not forced it on me.

On the other hand, I am just as emotionally open, in the middle of the night, to ideas that are exciting. I stumble onto questions from time to time that are new to me and that engage me immediately. Currently, during the COVID—19 pandemic, I am reading a lot about loneliness. Why are people lonely?


Well…loneliness is a deficit of some sort. Is it a lack of company? Not to the people who write about “being lonely in a crowd?” Is it a lack of meaning? Not to people who encourage more and better distractions as a good solution.  Is it any one thing at all? Not to people who want to define loneliness by their experience of it.

lonely 1But that is not what I want to do. I want to build a model of human functioning that makes sense to me and that I can use. So I need some premises about human functioning and then I need some observations that test and affirm the premises. [1] I plug the day’s observations, the reading I do, the conversations I have, into the system and up pops new idea—sometimes a really intriguing idea. Take loneliness, for instance.

Am I experiencing “loneliness” when I say I am experiencing loneliness? Of course not. I am experiencing something and it is an “instance” of the category I put it in. I could have exactly the same sensation on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and call it loneliness and then on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I call it “low self esteem.”

Like everyone else I know, I have had experiences I call “being lonely,” but I have also had times—sometimes long periods of time—when I do not have those experiences. When I am engaged in a project so intensely that time just goes away and sometimes even hunger, I don’t feel lonely. I don’t really feel anything at all. I am living in the project somewhere.

So are lonely people “project poor?”

I have also lost the sense of being lonely when I am working on a project with a colleague. [2] I don’t have that sense of total immersion, the kind of thing Mihaly Csikszentmihaly called “flow,”when I am cooperating with a colleague. I couldn’t afford it under those circumstances and I really don’t need it. I value him for his contributions to the project and I invest myself in the project counting on him to do what he does. [3]

So are lonely people “colleague poor?”

I have also lost the sense of being lonely when I am engaged in a relationship where I amlonely 4 receiving what feels like an unedited flow of self-expression from an intimate other and am allowing that same kind of unedited flow to come from myself. There is nothing particularly erotic about this exchange, although there is no reason it could not involve erotic commitment. We hunger, I think, to know who another person really is and at the same time, we know that society simply can’t operate that way. Society—civil association—requires that we play our parts and do our jobs and relate to each other with the psychic surplus. And that is why we hunger to know who another person really is.

We don’t just “be” with each other. We have to actively remove the playacting that allows us to live together in groups and come closer and closer to that intimately perceived unity that we call “myself.” It’s an active thing. And I can lead or you can lead but whoever leads may call out a corresponding relaxation of the personal editing we do so that we move from one level of trust and consequent candor to another, to another.

Are lonely people “intimacy poor?”

There is also a kind of evaluation of myself—of my behavior, principally—that helps protect me. [4] For many years not, I have taken seriously the spectare = to see part of the word “respect.” That’s how it is different from self-esteem. “Esteem” is based on a sense of who you are, of your innate worth. Respect is based on an assessment of what you have done and are doing. “The respect of others” is variable because the standards of valuation are variable and even my respect for myself varies. It varies not only because I behave better some times and worse at other times, but because the standard I use to evaluate my work varies from one time to another.

But when I am challenged and have the clear sense that I could respond in the better way or the worse way and choose, at whatever cost, the better way, my respect for myself is bolstered. And when my respect for myself—my self-respect—is strong, I simply don’t experience loneliness. [5]

So are lonely people people who don’t respect themselves?

Deaths of Despair

This has been on my mind recently because I have been reading about the sharp increase in “deaths of despair,” particularly in the United States. A lot of people are concluding that “it” is just not worth it and kill themselves quickly (suicide) or slowly (drug and alcohol abuse). Despair is not the same as loneliness, but all these despairing people are lonely. That’s why I’ve been thinking about it.

And people who look at this problem is a practical way—that’s not me; I am looking at it in a theoretical way—wonder what to do to help people feel less lonely. They recommend more physical activity and more socializing and more entertainment. But if loneliness is the kind of thing I’ve been speculating about, none of those things is going to help much and the kinds of things that will help are the things the lonely people will do, the effect of which will be to protect themselves from those feelings.

lonely 5I don’t object to the things that are being proposed, but I also don’t see any connection between those proposals and the kinds of things I think—using the system I have derived for my own use—actually help people. So I see those proposals and I wave them away. Yeah, fine. But when I am pressed to adopt or support them, I am forced to say that I don’t think they will help. And when I am pushed to say why I think that, I trot out my own set of presuppositions and the observations that are consistent with them. That is often not received well.

But…just to finish out with the sleep reference, what would happen if the “deaths of despair” hypothesis, which has been swishing into my brain and back out again like a tide, suddenly acquires the missing piece. Some new conceptual tool or some new study or some new phrase that locks together a lot of the things I have been thinking about? Wouldn’t that be exciting? And if it happened in the middle of the night—which it does, sometimes—wouldn’t it keep me up?

Of course it would. And I would be grateful for the privilege. But the next day, I would need a nap.

[1] None of this should be confused with scientific inquiry, of course. I don’t control the flow of data, the level of awareness, or the precise standards by which I categorize my experiences. And we won’t even think about a control group.
[2] I don’t have very high standards for the use of the word “colleague.” If we are chosen or sent—we get that part of the word from the Latin verb legare = to send as a deputy—to the same task or at the same time, then we are “in league with each other.”
[3] And if that sounds like C. S. Lewis’s reflections on philia, I have done it right. That is where I first encountered this idea and I have experienced it myself many times over the years.
[4] The reverse side of this is that when I disapprove of my choices and my behavior it doesn’t protect me. It doesn’t lead me toward loneliness, however. Guilt and shame are my weak points, not sociability.
[5] My “self-esteem,” by contrast, is based on my celebration of who I am or on the support of others who esteem me highly. I have no confidence at all in my estimate of my innate worth. For me, that is a theological question. And I have no confidence in the stability of the assessment of me by others. That comes and goes like clouds come and go, having no sense at all of whether you need to see the sun.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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