loneliness


This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

I recently saw “The End of the Tour,”  the movie about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) shortly after Wallace’s landmark novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996. Lipsky travels to Wallace’s modest rented home in Bloomington, Illinois, then accompanies him on a trip to Minneapolis for the last stop of the book tour. The movie is a long conversation between two intelligent men in their 30s, one probing, the other alternately spilling out his thoughts and lamenting the artificiality of their interaction. These seem to be two men struggling with despair, only one of whom realizes the struggle is occurring.

In alluding to despair, I’m thinking of the way that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the term. In his Sickness Unto Death, he describes despair as a condition of the self. Here’s how I recently summarized the ways Kierkegaard thought we despair:

“We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of  him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as ‘the despair of defiance.’”

It doesn’t take much effort to see that David Foster Wallace (the Wallace of the film, that is, who might not have resembled the real man) was well acquainted with despair. He tells Lipsky that he is addicted to junk television (we see one TV-watching binge during the movie). Any addiction, TV included, can be considered either an attempt to escape from oneself or an attempt to be a self other than who one is (or both). Of the two possibilities, Wallace seems mainly to have been trying to get away from himself.

Wallace seems quite aware of his propensity towards despair. In 1988, eight years before Lipsky’s interview, he was hospitalized and put on suicide watch. He says to Lipsky (all quotes are my best attempts to transcribe the dialogue from the movie, but I can’t vouchsafe their accuracy), “I was a 28 year old who had exhausted a couple ways of living.” After describing the experience in the hospital, he added, “and when that happens you become unprecedentedly willing to explore some other avenues of how to live.” I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but I understand that it can be considered just such an exploration of ways to live. Wallace isn’t so sure his search has unearthed a workable solution. Looking back to the time he fell apart, He tells Lipsky, “I don’t think we change. I think I still have the same parts of me. I’m trying hard to find a way to just let them live.” He was well aware that despair still lurked within.

Wallace sees contemporary culture as making it particularly difficult for him (or anyone else, for that matter) to be a self capable of wholeness. That culture produced the endless flood of TV shows constantly available to soothe his angst. He foresees a time in which the internet and virtual reality become even more insiduous pathogens capable of infecting and  destroying the self. He says at one point that his writing is about “how easy it is to be seduced off your path because of the way the culture is.” He then mentions what he fears: “What if I become a parody of that?”

Wallace seems to have thought that a genuine connection with another human being would aid him in his struggles. He opens up to Lipsky with that end in mind. That effort proves fruitless, since Lipsky has no intention of being genuine. He would rather present a counterfit self in order to charm Wallace and thereby obtain material for his Rolling Stone article. Wallace at one point says that literary success has made him feel like a whore, but Lipsky is the real whore here, prostituting his humanity in an attempt to gain success.

Lipsky wishes to be a self he can’t be–he wishes to be an acclaimed author like Wallace–but, as portrayed by Eisenberg, anyway, doesn’t have the insight to realize that this striving is a form of despair. As Lipsky prepares to drive away after the interview is completed, Wallace leans into his car window and says, “I’m not so sure you want to be me.” Good words of warning for those times when we start thinking that we will be at peace if only we manage to be someone other than who we are.

Advertisements

A recent New Yorker article titled “How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy” actually describes research findings indicative of greater unhappiness AND greater happiness among Facebook users, depending on what they did on the site.  Several studies were summarized, including a recent study by a team of researchers led by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan.  Those researchers sent text messages to research participants five times a day for two weeks, asking about Facebook use and emotional status.  The more the Facebook use at the time of one text, the worse these participants felt at the time of the next text.  Greater Facebook use was associated with decreased well-being over the course of the two-week study.  Another study found that looking at Facebook posts made by others was associated with increased envy, a phenomenon thought to be the result of social comparison. How can social comparison have this effect? Within the last 24 hours, friends on my Facebook feed have posted pictures from Hawaii, a college football game, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, and a street festival.  Meanwhile, I’m sitting in my bedroom writing this post.  Am I envious?  No, actually, since I’m still getting over jet lag from a great trip to Washington and don’t want to be anywhere with more sizzle than where I am right now, but you get the idea.

Not all studies find that social media use puts us in the doldrums.  Some studies have found such use to be associated with increased happiness, social trust, and engagement.  Even the thought of sharing something via social media increases activity in the pleasure centers of the brain.  Why have the findings about social media use and emotional states been so inconsistent?

One possible way of accounting for the different results comes from a 2010 study by Moira Burke of Carnegie Mellon University and colleagues.  Among those who actively interacted on Facebook by posting themselves, commenting on others’ posts, or even liking those posts, loneliness was decreased and feelings of bonding were increased, particularly bonding with those who live in close proximity.  On the other hand, passively consuming content posted by others was associated with more loneliness and decreased bonding.  Thus, perhaps it is not the amount of Facebook use that matters, but whether the user is participating actively or only passively.

So, the following rules for increasing happiness (or at least minimizing misery) among those of us who use Facebook seem consistent with the research to date:

  1. Use sparingly.
  2. Have as friends those to whom you aren’t particularly likely to compare yourself (I manage to follow this rule, since I use Facebook largely to keep up with former students, my kids, and my nephews and nieces, all of whom are at very different stages of life than I am).
  3. Don’t just passively scan your feed.  Comment, like, and post things yourself.

The last rule may make you happier, but, to the extent you are creating more content for your friends to passively scan, it might have an adverse effect on them.  Ah, the ethical dilemmas of Facebook use!

I’ll conclude this post by sharing some great pictures from my trip to Washington.  Research indicates it will give me great pleasure to do so.  Beware, though: looking at them without liking or commenting on this post may be hazardous to your emotional well-being!

Lighthouse Park, Vancouver

Lighthouse Park, Vancouver

Elliot Ritzema by the Swinomish Channel, La Conner, Washington

Elliot Ritzema by the Swinomish Channel, La Conner, Washington

Mary Ritzema at the Greek Festival, Bellingham, Washington

Mary Ritzema at the Greek Festival, Bellingham, Washington

Me at Picture Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Me at Picture Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Early in March, I went to London with a group from Methodist University. It was a marvelous trip; I hope to write blog entries about a few of the highlights.  One thing I did while there was attend the play End of the Rainbow at Trafalgar Studios in the West End.  The plot concerns Judy Garland’s personal and professional struggles near the end of her life.  The audience first sees Garland (played by Tracie Bennett) entering a hotel room accompanied by Mickey (Stephen Hagen), her recently acquired fiancé.  She is in London for five weeks of shows at the Talk of the Town club.  Waiting for her at the hotel is Anthony (Hilton McRae), and old friend who is to be her accompanist for the performances.  She is a wreck: broke, hungry for drugs and alcohol, even more hungry for attention, and emotionally labile.  

Photograph by Robert Day

Much of her neediness is directed at Mickey.  We learn that she met him while performing six weeks earlier at a club he managed.  He had initially supplied her with drugs, but now imagines himself as her protector, and, in that role, tries to keep her sober.  Those who promise to protect often desire to control, though, and Mickey is no exception.  The script portrays him as something of a thug.  Anthony accuses him of using Judy as his meal ticket, and he confirms this judgment near the end of the play by reversing course and foisting drugs on her when that seems to be the only way to get her to continue to perform.  Judy alternately dotes over Mickey and tantrums when he doesn’t give her what she wants. 

In the hotel room rehearsing with Anthony for the engagement, Judy insouciantly dashes through the lyrics, at one point crossing out a few lines with the comment, “They’ll be applauding then.”  Her mood bounces from elation to despair.  Some of the professed despair is in fact manipulation—she threatens to jump from the balcony as a ploy to avoid paying the hotel bill—but from time to time her inner emptiness is evident.  It’s ironic that someone who received such adulation during her life could still be craving more.  In his conversation with the woman at the well recorded in John 4, Jesus contrasts ordinary water with living water, the drinkers of which “will never be thirsty.”  Public acclaim is the former sort of liquid—temporarily satisfying but over the long run intensifying rather than sating thirst.  

Though the play is set mainly in the hotel room, at times the back wall is raised to reveal a small orchestra.  The play’s audience then becomes the audience at the Talk of the Town for Judy’s shows.   In contrast to her desultory singing during rehearsal, the musical numbers at the Talk of the Town are marvelous; Ms. Bennett is certainly a wonderful singer.  After the success of opening night, though, Judy’s psyche, loosely wound to began with, unravels further.   She keeps absconding from Mickey’s supervision to drink and seek drugs, claiming that that’s the only way she can continue to perform every night.  We eventually learn reasons why she’s struggling.  For one thing, she fears abandonment, pleading with Mickey at one point,” Don’t give up on me, the men I love tend to leave.  They go when I’m not looking.”  Shortly thereafter, she sings, poignantly, “The Man That Got Away.”  She also confides to Anthony that she is terrified of going on stage, saying, “it’s a terrible thing to know what you’re capable of and to never get there.” 

Anthony is Judy’s encourager and confidant, a safe person amidst the sharks surrounding her.  He is gay, something that plays a major role in the play’s humor.  Predictable and humdrum jokes about his lack of heterosexual interest are the show’s the weakest element.  When Judy reveals her fear to Anthony, he replies soothingly, “we all are frightened, like little children.  The best that we can do is find someone to go through it with us.”  He says he will be that someone; he invites Judy to move into his house, where she will be safe from the world’s menace.  We learn at the end of the play that Judy instead went on to marry Mickey.  I’m not sure that any choice she made at that point would have saved her from herself.  At one point, she asks Mickey, “Do you love me, or do you love her,” referring to Judy Garland the singer and public figure.  He professes to love Judy the person, but even if he were telling the truth, which is doubtful, she doesn’t seem to believe that she can compete with the persona she’s created.  All of us have difficulty at times accepting and living as the self we truly are rather than the self we pretend to be, but at least the rest of us don’t have thousands of people idolizing our false self.  Perhaps taking drugs, including the barbiturates that killed her, was Judy’s desperate attempt to escape from both the star she had created and the frightened soul that she was convinced would never match the brilliance of that personage.

I recently saw the movie The Social Network, based loosely on the founding of Facebook.  The story is an ironic one: as screenwriter Aaron Sorkin put it in The New Yorker, “It’s a group of, in one way or another, socially dysfunctional people who created the world’s great social-networking site.”  The movie isn’t intended as a factual account; it is based on known facts, but is a dramatic retelling. 

We first meet Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg), Facebook’s creator, as a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore talking with his then-girlfriend Erica.  He alternately seeks to impress her with his knowledge, yearns for membership in one of Harvard’s final clubs, and shows barely concealed distain towards her.  She breaks up with him, not for his being a geek, she says, but “for being an a–hole.”  Hurt, he goes to his dorm room, gets drunk, writes a nasty blog entry about her, and hacks into the Harvard computer system to create a website inviting Harvard males to rate the comparative attractiveness of Harvard coeds.  The overwhelming response to the site crashes the Harvard server by 4 the next morning.  Mark, it seems, is insensitive, desirous of social acceptance, vengeful, and terribly capable. 

Mark’s escapade with the coed ranking site attracts the attention of Harvard seniors and identical twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), who are members of the social elite that Mark aspires to.  They ask Mark to join them in creating a social networking site for Harvard students.  He agrees, then strings them along while he creates his own site (initially called thefacebook) with the financial assistance of his closest friend, Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield).  The twins soon learn of the betrayal and, after their attempts to resolve their complaint with Mark and the Harvard authorities fail, they sue.  Eventually, Mark, having fallen under the influence of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), betrays Eduardo by diluting Eduardo’s shares in the corporation down to almost nothing, and he sues as well.  Much of the movie cuts from the principals and their lawyers sitting in depositions for these lawsuits to the actions being described in the depositions.  The social relationships of these social network builders are irreparably broken.  Mark seems incapable of establishing a meaningful emotional connection with anyone.

The movie suggests that Mark’s main motivation is acceptance by the social elite, especially by members of the final clubs.  As the fledgling Facebook starts to grow, Eduardo but not Mark is selected for possible membership by one of the final clubs.  Mark professes indifference to Eduardo’s acceptance, but there is a strong suggestion that Mark betrays Eduardo over envy.  What makes the movie so dispiriting is that Mark is driven by desire for something without value.  The members of the club to which he aspires are arrogant, condescending towards nonmembers, misogynist, and hedonistic.  Augustine wrote that we are defined by our loves, and that happiness is only possible if the object of our love is conducive to enhancing our well-being.  Even had Mark been accepted in the social circles he aspired to, it seems unlikely that he could have been happy.

I wrote earlier about the modern malaise of loneliness.  I suggested at that time that social networking sites provide only a thin veneer of community and may intensify loneliness.  Similarly, in a Newsweek review of Social Network, Jeremy McCarter suggests “A site that began as a response to modern loneliness looks, after the film, like a record of our own struggle with that condition.”  Our Facebook connections are superficial largely because we have a narcissistic turn when we sign on; that is, we tend to portray ourselves as more clever and important than we are, and we look to others for affirmation of that inflated self.  As portrayed in the film, Mark Zuckerberg certainly is somewhat narcissistic, and we become more like him when we enter his creation.  Narcissism is only part of the story, though. The Zuckerberg of the film has narcissistic elements, but I view him as being more autistic than narcissistic.  I’m not referring to the psychiatric diagnosis of autism but to the original meaning of the term.  My 1966 edition of the American College Dictionary defines autism as “fantasy; introverted thought; daydreaming; marked subjectivity of interpretation.”  Though he wanted acceptance, in the film Mark always took an inward turn; how he imagined the world and recreated it in his mind and in cyberspace was more important to him than how others actually viewed him.  Might not Facebook be autistic in the same sense: each of us creating our own fantasy, each pleased with the world we have made?

I recently read Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 by Frederic Morton.  I was fascinated by the confluence of the decrepit Habsburg monarchy, the entrenched aristocracy, the socialist and communist revolutionaries, and the psychoanalytic establishment all within the confines of prewar Vienna (the book concludes with Austria and the other European powers going to war in August, 1914).  In a passage I found thought-provoking, Morton describes Viennese political writer Karl Kraus’ analysis of the assassination of Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip.  The assassination, thought Kraus, was not the work of a single man, of a subversive organization, or even a nation, for: “No less a force than progress stands behind this deed—progress and education unmoored from God. . .”  

Morton thinks that the progress that Kraus was alluding to was the progress of modernization and industrialization.  Princip’s ancestors had lived for centuries in a zadruga, a Bosnian farming community.  His father, displaced from the land, had earned his living as a postman.  Thus, the family was dislocated not only from farm and community but from the spirituality of nature.  The next generation was even more estranged.  As Morton puts it:

 “His son Gavrilo, more educated than his father, more sensitive, more starved for the wholeness that is holiness and thus more resentful of the ruins all about him, had to seek another garden.  He sought something that would satisfy his disorientation and his anger; something which, as his readings of Nietzsche suggested, would restore the valor of the vital principle that his race had lost.” (p. 319)

 Princip found as his guiding principle hatred of the Austrians who occupied Bosnia.  He sought to drive out the Austrians and reclaim Bosnia as a Slavic land.  Even if this enterprise had proved successful, though, it could never have restored his grandparents’ Eden, for that had been lost to modernity.

 I was particularly struck by Morton’s diagnosis of Princip’s plight: he was “starved for the wholeness that is holiness.”  What is the connection between holiness and wholeness, and how does modernity deprive of that wholeness?  Kraus seems to have believed that God is experienced via the natural world, and the mechanization and industrialization of modern societies exclude God and thereby the holy from our lives, leaving us fragmented.  Were he to see our lives today, I imagine that he would think that the alienation of the spirit that was already proceeding rapidly in 1914 has not slacked its pace since then. 

 My thoughts about the modern diminishment of both holiness and wholeness were given additional impetus by a posting on a listserv for therapists to which I subscribe.  Dr. Mark Stern, the author of the post, expressed concern that modern technology has changed psychotherapy, intruding on the “sacred Sabbath of the psychotherapy hour.”  He described the resulting loss in exactly the same language of wholeness and holiness that Morton uses:

 “I’m not at all sure the ways in which the paradox of wholeness/holiness has become distanced from these times. Personally, I fear that the robotization of what is still referred to as therapy (though, in reality, behavioral manipulation), has placed some closure on the sacredness of the individual. In place of depth affirmation of inner life; of embodied vision and of the practice of delving into the richness of latent knowledge, the standards of manualized techniques have moved away from the mysteries.”

 gearsThe therapist’s office no longer serves as a sanctuary from the ruin wrought by the machine; it has largely been mechanized itself, so that the refugees seeking solace there are simply subjected to one more technology.

 We live in unholy times—times when the sacred is given short shrift.  Many still have a yearning for holiness and wholeness, as evidenced by the popularity of seeker-friendly churches, religious ritual, and new-age spirituality.  Like Humpty-Dumpty, though, we aren’t put together again very readily.  I hope to reflect in a later post on what is conducive to the wholeness that stems from holiness.

Recently I wrote a post on Dorothy Day’s quasi-autobiography The Long Loneliness.  A few days later, I ran across this Newsweek article on loneliness in American society.  The news on the loneliness front is bad:  we’re getting more lonely all the time.  For example, over a twenty-year period, there was a three-fold increase in the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters. 

Loneliness is not the same thing as being alone.   The definition of loneliness given by the article is the same one used in most psychological research on the subject, namely that it is “an aversive emotional response to a perceived discrepancy between a person’s desired levels of social interaction and the contact they’re actually receiving.”  I have thought about whether the definition fit me.   I live alone and spend quite a bit of time by myself but am seldom lonely.  I actually would like somewhat more social interaction than I have, but not with the people readily available for that interaction.  (What I would like is to have more contact with people who live some distance away.)   It never made much sense to me to lament not having more interaction with others, and I do manage to fill much of my time alone with things that I either enjoy or think are useful.  My experience suggests that it is possible to have the discrepancy that the definition refers to without also having the “aversive emotional response.” 

The Newsweek article makes a number of fairly obvious points about loneliness persisting for many in our society despite increased electronic connections with others.  Facebook and MySpace provide only a thin sense of community.  Looking at Facebook can be the occasion for comparing one’s pathetic social involvement to the great relationships that everyone else seems immersed in, thereby evoking increased loneliness.  Sure, we know that Facebook Walls just present the most superficial of facades—they really do serve as walls that hide more than they reveal—but the stories they tell at least contain actors and scenes that seem much better than anything going on in our lives. 

facebook

On the other hand, perhaps the problem isn’t so much that social network sites are the relational equivalent of junk food as that, in both online and face-to-face interactions, we aren’t looking for what is most sustaining–a genuine encounter with another human being.  What Dorothy Day did much better than I or most people I know was to get outside the confines of self and take interest in others.  Her descriptions of the people that flowed through the hospitality houses, farms, and factories she frequented are the richest chapters of her memoir.  Exploring and cherishing the uniqueness of each person was an effective salve for her loneliness.  It’s a prescription that perhaps could benefit many in our age of isolation.