Is loneliness a sensible lifestyle alternative? Instead of being a sad pathology, can social withdrawal be a rational and practical response to a world one finds grossly unattractive?
I would have said certainly not, unless you happen to be Henry David Thoreau, J.D. Salinger or a monk. But that was before I read the e-mail I received in response to my last week about an important recent study that finds Americans have dramatically fewer close confidants than they did just twenty years ago.
I thought perhaps my column – that is, the study I wrote about – had touched a social nerve when it became the most read story on CBSNews.com on the day it first ran.
I was surprised because the piece was a rather dry recap of the study; it was a bit egg-headed for a news site. Usually our most popular story is the big news of the day, or something especially lurid, bizarre or controversial. A discourse on a paper published in the American Sociological Review didn't quite hit any of those marks.
The volume of my e-mail was slightly less than what I normally get. But the content of it stunned me. You want a bigger word than "stunned?" How about shocked, surprised or baffled?
Roughly half the e-mails declared, in essence, "I'm lonely by choice and damn proud of it!" These were not heart-tugging missives from isolated nebbishes and unfortunates. These were assertive and clearly argued position papers.
What to make of them? Rationalizations? Symptoms? Or sane responses to an insane world?
"U.S. citizens are isolated because it is unhealthy to risk contact with one's fellow citizens," wrote Holly from Midland, Texas. "Humans wish to survive. It is healthier to be lonely than to risk contact with a society without decency and without mores."
Isolation, for some, is evidently more tolerable than contact pollution.
"I am one of the people in the 'no confidant' category that 20 years ago had a network of friends and confidants that I no longer have to rely upon," Sheri Foster e-mailed. "Today I avoid as many people as possible."
"Why? I am tired," she explains. "Tired of rude people. Tired of angry people. Tired of people who have no pride in their homes, their neighborhoods, their jobs. Tired of people who disregard how they affect others. Tired of people with no patience, no compassion, no understanding. Tired of people who have no tolerance at all."
Many lonely-and-proud correspondents based their decisions to isolate on politics, specifically the inability or distastefulness of trying and failing to find common ground with people of different philosophic flavors.
"I am, according to Meyer, 'lonely,' but it comes from a conscious decision on my part," wrote Ron Vida, from the conservative side. "For me, it is safer to be a loner than to chance 'offending' some sensitive soul who will lash out against me with a lawsuit if I speak what I believe. We've all heard of 'defensive driving.' The current social environment is so potentially chaotic that we resort to 'defensive living.'"
"Dick: It's not depressing, nor terrifying for me," he wrote. "What's your problem?"
"We have had a political practice in this country for the last twenty years that was intended to divide people. As a single person, I felt pushed right out of America during all of the recent campaigns that have stressed the overwhelming importance of family," writes Phyllis Lindblade.
"During the last five years, we have been told that only certain opinions are acceptable and other opinions are deviant and traitorous. We have the Rush Limbaughs and the Dr. Lauras telling us how to think and telling us that all other thinking is wrong," says Lindblade. "How can I share my thinking with anyone when my very American citizenship might be vilified? We could have wider networks of confidants if there was more sun shining on America, if all of the clouds of threat were removed."