Author: Daniel Schreiber
Publisher: Carl Hanser Verlag, Germany
«We». This small, embracing personal pronoun is the first word in Daniel Schreiber’s book about being alone and feeling alone. Two different concepts. «We» – the author with his good friends – sit in a beautiful garden, drink coffee and enjoy the late summer sun. The 44-year-old lives a successful writer’s life.
It should be mentioned that Schreiber is also a man who has struggled with his homosexuality, his changing relationships, and his mental barriers. All in all, one would think, a perfect starting point for evaluating the many ways of being alone. And self-imposed social isolation is part of the toolbox.
Schreiber would hardly have been a writer if he had not made various excursions into the rich hermit literature, from Thoreau’s Walden via Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Jean-Paul Sartre’s loneliness novel Nausea. None of them is really all alone. Thoreau visited his mother weekly, where he enjoyed her good food. Robinson had Friday. Sartre’s main character regularly went silently to bed with his landlady Françoise. Likewise, Schreiber’s social withdrawal, whether due to work or a pandemic, is characterized by activities that alleviate an ever-creeping feeling of loneliness. He participates in self-help meetings via Zoom. He hikes in the mountains. Trains yoga. He knits.
Schreiber’s need to understand comes with pain: «Our own experiences of loneliness are so traumatic that we automatically push them away, and later we lose access to them. Sometimes I talk to someone and think that, yes, he seems lonely. Then I immediately notice the need to avoid the topic. As if I could be infected.»
Infected or not, acute loneliness affects both winners and losers. In Schreiber’s self-description, it leads to mental changes, to the feeling of no longer being oneself. The lack of social contact excludes those aspects of oneself that only unfold in contact with others. One becomes hypersensitive to the reactions of others, positive as well as negative. One has a wealth of emotions but no addressee.
It also does not help those who live alone and are already struggling, that they are underestimated by the majority, as they are often seen as victims. They have not done what is designed for success – entered into a stable relationship and started a family.
In Germany, more than 17 million people now live alone. Schreiber: «To think that all these people are lonely is absurd. In recent decades, new types of loneliness have been increasingly proclaimed. These are mostly complaints about media, social transformation, and the decay of the classic family structure. The complaints – even if justified – have little to do with loneliness.»
Human life stages play a central role in the construction of the self. Very few probably go through – when we have to accept the existential reality that we are born and die alone, with or without relationships and/or a large circle of friends.
Allein is a text that glides freely between literary quotes, expressions of opinion and personal confessions. «I have experienced strong feelings of loneliness waking up, knowing that my desire is considered unnatural in the society I live in. For many gay people, this experience leads to shame. For my part, it took time before I was ready to admit this shame. I thought I was above that kind of thing. My psychotherapist changed my mind.»
Seeking time alone can be a remedy for loneliness.
The loneliness machinery
For people living alone, friendship naturally plays a special role. The question of whether it can replace romantic love is put in the balance. Friendship has, throughout history, enjoyed an overarching position, from the ancient cultivation of friendship to popular culture’s idealization of the same. The television series Friends is a typical example of the latter, and one Schreiber himself for a long time was fascinated by. But at the same time, he is clear about what he calls «a sugared concept of friendship, the one that pretends that friends are always there for each other – that no one understands us better than them. I find that unbearable. That’s just not true. But friendship undoubtedly constitutes a fundamental good: it helps us leave our narcissistic horizon and meet other people in their diversity».
Loneliness has many faces. One of them has political features. Key words are the myriads of regulations during the coronavirus pandemic, with manifestations of racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny and anti-Semitism. All this shuts people out and contributes to their sense of inferiority, increasing their loneliness. As Schreiber writes: «The distribution of privileges is a central part of the loneliness machinery.»
When Schreiber has worked through his innumerable angles, a clarity crystallizes: Being alone is a situation. It can be described in simple words. You are alone in the house. You are alone in supporting the family. You go on holiday alone. One withdraws and chooses a home office when too many meetings and too much superficial digital «friendship» creates emotional emptiness. Seeking time alone can thus be a remedy for loneliness.
Being lonely is an emotional state. It can occur when you are alone or through time with others. The condition is subjectively conditioned and can be difficult to put into words beyond this one word – «lonely.» This incapacity to communicate is a problem that increases the feeling of loneliness, as it increases the distance from others and erodes one’s inner self. Schreiber’s relentless sincerity acts as an outstretched hand for anyone who wants to follow his example and dares to see himself.