For a six-month period in the early 1970s, a musician who called himself Bill Martin had a regular gig at the Executive Room, a piano bar in Los Angeles. He played for a group of steady customers who came out on Saturday evenings, people who led lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau might have put it. As Martin later recalled, there was an old man “makin' love to his tonic and gin,” a bartender who dreamed of Hollywood stardom, a would-be novelist who sold real estate by day, a waitress “practicing politics.” They came to listen and to forget about life for a while. He played them a melody, a memory, a fading dream, and they asked him, “Man, what are you doin’ here?”
A good question. As it happens, Bill Martin was on the lam from his record company, and he needed to earn a living while lawyers worked to get him out of his contract. His full name was William Martin Joel, better known as Billy Joel. The regulars at the piano bar later found their way into a song he called “Piano Man,” including the waitress, who was his real-life wife at the time. “Piano Man” was Billy Joel’s first Top 40 hit, and it has been his signature song ever since.
I have never really hung out in bars, and “Piano Man” has helped me to understand why bars have always brought out in me vague feelings of melancholy. The life that goes on there seems to have been written in a minor key (although “Piano Man” itself is not). Perhaps the melancholy is just the alcohol acting as a depressant on the central nervous system. As the song says, people go to bars to share a drink called loneliness because it’s better than drinking alone.
As I write this, the U.S. is in the grip of the worst pandemic in a century, and the economy is in a shambles. The COVID-19 virus has exacerbated many of the nation’s underlying social ills, including poverty, racism and a dysfunctional healthcare system. With as yet no vaccine or effective treatments, the only way to stave off the disease is to shelter in place, which has exposed another ill: social isolation. It is no longer desirable even to share the drink of loneliness, as Billy Joel might say, since it’s now far safer to drink alone.
Social scientists have invoked the term “epidemic” to characterize loneliness — an especially apt term when the nation is ravaged by the coronavirus. But is it true? You can argue that loneliness, especially with people living alone during a time of temporary enforced isolation, is merely circumstantial. Absent that, is there any evidence that there is more loneliness now than there used to be? Hard to say, since loneliness has only been the subject of serious scientific inquiry in recent decades. It’s true that we no longer live in tribal societies; most of us are no longer securely embedded in extended families or small towns or even necessarily in traditional nuclear families. Our circumstances are such that more of us live alone and are more susceptible to loneliness.
The novelist Thomas Wolfe once wrote, "The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.” Could it be that loneliness is — and always has been — endemic to the human condition? The biblical creation story notes that the Lord God took one look at the solitary creature made in his own image and pronounced, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The Lord at least temporarily solved that problem by making two of a kind. However, the pair of them promptly got up to a bit of mischief and wound up being evicted from the Garden of Eden, suggesting there might be worse things than being alone. The two of them had a pair of sons who were soon at each other’s throats, and Cain — presumably the progenitor of humanity — ended up as an only child.
Whatever the circumstances that give rise to it, loneliness is demonstrably bad for you; indeed, it can kill you. Social isolation has been linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and cardio-vascular disease, as well as digestive problems and sleep disruption. The use of solitary confinement in the penal system has long been recognized as a factor in suicides and insanity. Anger, depression, anxiety, even paranoia and psychosis can result from prolonged isolation. People who have strong social networks live longer on average than those who do not.
According to historian Fay Bound Alberti, the word “loneliness” did not exist in the English language until 1800 or so. The closet approximation was the word “oneliness,” meaning the state of being alone. Loneliness and solitude are not the same thing. We flee from one and seek out the other when we feel the world crowding in on us. Solitude is loneliness turned inside out.
For spiritual adepts like Thomas Merton, solitude is devoutly to be wished as a pathway to God. Upon entering the Trappist monastery at Gethsemane, he later wrote, “I had entered into a solitude that was an impregnable fortress. And the silence that enfolded me, spoke to me, and spoke louder and more eloquently than any voice.” Solitude as a pathway to God is not for everyone, because it requires us to face down our fears of being alone. “Nothing is so like God as silence,” wrote Meister Eckhart, a 13th-century German mystic. The silence of God is not nothing. Once you are alone with God, you discover that the two of you are one of a kind.
Thomas Wolfe, "God's Lonely Man"
Alan Jacobs, "Thomas Merton, the Monk Who Became a Prophet," The New Yorker (December 28, 2018)