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Sociability • Friendship

Why Everyone We Meet is a Little Bit Lonely

One of the reasons why we tend not to make friends as often as we might comes down to a powerful background idea whose full destructive force we may not even be aware of: the belief that any decent person already has all the friends they need. 

Somewhere in our minds, the notion has been lodged that only very sad and inept people would – at this stage in their lives (and by this is simply meant whatever stage one happens to be at) – still have a space in their social agenda for a new entrant. Everyone else – anyone worth knowing, anyone talented, interesting and good – would long ago have acquired the gang to which they were now continuously and irredeemably wedded.

Painting by Max Liebermann showing a small girl alone on a dune near a beach.
Max Liebermann, Dune near Nordwijk with Child, 1906

What this punishing idea misses is the extent to which a feeling of loneliness and disenchantment with current company is in reality an ongoing and universal possibility, in no way limited to those of reduced appeal and capacities. Right now, the enchanting actor is (despite the crowds) lonely; as is the feted concert pianist, the renown biologist, the skilled airline pilot, the miraculous neurosurgeon and that rather nice looking person you have just spotted in the corner of the room laughing animatedly with a group of fashionable companions. 

It’s open to anyone of sensitivity and charm to fail to find the right sort of allies, to have outgrown their friends from school or university, to not have landed on congenial spirits at work or in the sports centre and to be spending a lot of evenings on their own, either physically or spiritually. And we can know this for certain of other people because we know it, first and foremost, from a very reliable source: ourselves. 

We need to battle the fatefully modest part of our minds that reads our isolation as a selective punishment and vanquish it with a crucial bit of evidence available directly from our own experience. Other people who know us at a social level almost certainly find it hard to imagine the degree to which we are exposed to loneliness and how much we’d still like to locate a wise, tender, funny and interesting new friend – and it’s statistically entirely improbable that we would be outliers in this respect. What holds true for us must and will hold true for others.

We have built a predominantly cold and guarded society by falsely imagining a thesis which we implicitly know to be untrue on the basis of our own experience. We have allowed a species of self-hatred and shame to cloud our judgement and reduce to the status of a personal curse what is in fact a universal affliction and possibility. 

The next time we spot an interesting person, we should to stop contravening the moral of our own lives. We don’t have exactly the right people in our circle – and nor, most probably, do they. We can afford to shed our false background thesis of social existence – and go and say hello.

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