“Writing can be lonely work.” I read this statement in The Wall Street Journal last week in a column by a man named Edward Gerson. Thirteen years ago, at the age of 87, this man began writing for Dartmouth, his alma mater, chronicling the adventures of his graduating class of 1926. At the time he had about 150 people to write about. Now, at age 100, only 3 of his fellow 1926 alumni remain. So Gerson writes what he can about them, then writes his opinions (hey!) on things in general.
Who tunes in though? Who wants to hear about the three Dartmouth graduates from the Jazz Age? (Besides the occasional journalist trying to find a story for the daily oddball column). Who wants to read this column, for that matter (I know that you think it’s great, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling insecure about how the others feel). Any of what follows obviously could be wrong, but it’s sort of scratching at the truth of what many writers face and all people contemplate: How do we react to that realization that maybe no one is listening, that maybe we’re alone?
As I write this in a cold garage (don’t ask), I think about Gerson at his old wooden desk writing on a legal pad some 450 miles south of here. What does one worry about at 100? At 23, when I pause to consider my trouble, most seem more like distractions. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something in me that longed to spend more quality alone time, to go off into the wilderness on my own, like McCandless, Thoreau or Tolstoy at the end of his life. Why? There are plenty of reasons. Here’s the main one: Sometimes you have to choose between being alone and being lonely.
Really though, loneliness is something you choose, and the choice is always there because you’re always alone (to some degree). Don’t believe me? Well, read on! Remember, I just play the game, I don’t put the writing on the wall. If you think this is off topic for mental health, I strongly disagree. The choice between feeling lonely and being alone may be the most important one you make.
Let’s get back to our centurion correspondent, Mr. Gerson. He’s incredible in my eyes, for taking up the pen at 87. I’m not the only one to think that. In the column, it’s mentioned that one 20-something current Darthmouthian sends him some encouraging fan mail. Knowing that you have fans can be fantastic (no pun intended). I’m no celebrity, but I can’t imagine they ever start to feel too famous. Don’t tell me they hate being mobbed at the grocery store. Anyone saying they don’t want fame is lying or trying to relieve the cognitive dissonance of not getting any. But fame is a double edged sword. If the subject of fame stops working for the sake of work and starts to work to please the fans, the results ring false. Just think of all those bands you know where the first album rocked and the second was eh. When you’re just getting into a band, the go-to album is their Self-Titled release – because it’s usually their first, and it’s probably their best. Those later albums pander to the fans. The choice is between working for yourself or for others. The timeless musicians take on their fans. Whether it’s Dylan going electric or Kendrick Lamar trying new sounds (see subtitle). It’s not like the greats don’t read fan mail or care about their fans, but – like Gerson – it’s not at the heart of what they do.
Darko’s New Friend:
Have you heard the Nirvana song where the singer is happy, because they’ve found all of their friends, and those friends are in their head? When I was in the hospital and outpatient facility, I met people, some my age, who heard voices in their head. To be honest, I pitied those people and was relieved that I was not that crazy. People who live alone with their voices sound like the kind who’d commit an atrocity one day (i.e. – the voice told me to do it). This is garbage, however. It’s garbage because we all hear voices in our heads. I’m hearing one as I write this – speaking these words. Later I’ll be hearing one telling me to finish my Econ homework (actually, I can hear it now).
The writer Eckhart Tolle had a transformative breakdown in his late twenties (as a Ph.D student) when he realized that the only difference between himself and the crazy lady on the train was that she said her thoughts aloud. This inner dialogue is basically the adult version of playing with imaginary friends as a kid. Sometimes when no one else is around, a kid might ask GI Joe or Barbie what they want to do – not realizing that they’re really asking themselves. Most adults don’t have a doll, but they perform the same self-talk without acknowledging it to themselves. When people are together, this self-talk can create problems. Why do you think communication is one of the most important job skills? We think we have conversations with others, but really we’re just talking with ourselves.
Poor Miss Lonelyhearts:
Speaking of other people, aren’t they great? Well the ones we enjoy being around, at least. It can get boring if you’re with boring people. Or worse, it can get lonely. Being lonely when you’re with people may seem like a strange occurrence, but it happens often for some. Maybe you miss someone. Maybe you and those you are with have drifted apart. The most common issue perhaps is simply that we start to feel like Miss Lonelyhearts in Rear Window (1954). In other words, we want a mate. Or at least a lover. And how great it feels to find one but the excitement of a lover can go after a while, and a relationship can develop entrenched patterns, like deep grooves in a record.
My favorite movie is My Dinner with Andre (1981), and in it, Andre Gregory ponders what it would mean to live in a world where people acted on their every impulse. “…They would just be themselves every moment, with others. And we’re not necessarily up to it. I mean, if you felt like walking out on the person you live with, you’d walk out. Then if you felt like it you’d come back. But meanwhile the other person would have reacted to your walking out….” We’re in such a rush to know other people and find a relationship, but we spend so little time finding or knowing ourselves. A friend put it best: Before I can feel good spending time with someone else, I’ve got to feel good spending time with myself.
So there’s my little bit of self-help for the week. Work for yourself, recognize that you’re usually only with yourself, and get to know thyself. It’s not a foolproof theory (sure, some musicians have pretty terrible Self-Titled albums), but the choice between being one and being the loneliest number remains. Even Harry Nilsson struggled with that one, but at least he knew that it only takes a lime and a coconut to have yourself a party.
PAUL BEREZOVSKY can be reached at email@example.com.
Graphic by Andrew Li
Photo by The California Aggie Photo Team