Thinking, as I often do, of my elderly neighbors, many of them widowed ladies living in large houses alone, I think of the line from "Eleanor Rigby," a lament ("Ah, look at all the lonely people") that raises a question never answered in the song: why are so many people, who would seem to have all they need to live full lives, so lonely?
I've spent much time alone and in recent years have thought about solitude, in the way Merton and Thoreau and others define it, which is not loneliness at all. Writers, especially, need this type of alone-time to be detached from the needs of the world. It is a type of freedom.
But the single women in my community have not chosen to be alone. Even the married woman near us, age 84, who works in the yard mainly to attract our attention so we can chat and she can escape the painful loneliness and monotony of her 65-year-old marriage is lonely, more than some single women. Another neighbor of the same age, mentally declining, seems to be dying of loneliness. She talks with enthusiasm about only one topic: her husband, dead for the past 12 years. What can Lynn or I do that we have not already done to bring her some comfort?
I want to change such people's lives, make them alter their dull routines, open up new doors for them. But I am limited in what I can do.
I am reminded of all this, too, because I am reading Michael Cunningham's novel, By Nightfall, which gives a memorable portrait of a man's inner life. The main character, Peter, "can't stop himself mourning some lost world," but he can't say what it is or what prevents him from living fully in the present. Peter, whose marriage is anatomized in exquisite detail, is a portrait of restless loneliness and unanchored desire. At 3 a.m., when he is sleepless, his real self emerges, but he doesn't talk to anyone about his thoughts (at least not in the first half, which is all I have read of this intelligent and wise book).
Ronald Rolheiser has talked more eloquently than I can about how and why we are all lonely, restless--at least at many times in our lives; he does so in the context of prayer and the search for God, territory that seems foreign to the fictional world of affluent, post-modern New York City in Cunningham's novel.
This is unfortunate since Peter is hardly unique in feeling restless and alone--in that sad, intermittently depressed way that he and his family know loneliness. The only solution to this malaise sounds trite and sentimental: it involves a love greater and more generous than such characters seem capable of imagining.