As the hours of the day flow away toward the sun, slipping around the edge into the darkness, do we spend those hours thinking of death? Normally, no. Much more often, we think about the people we have relationships with, about what they said or did, about what we might do with them, about what they are thinking about us. Or we think about wishing someone was waiting for us.
Will it seem trivial if I quote Joe Cocker as he sings? The line must be imagined sung with a voice rising in pitch from excitement, with a roughness to the voice that also cries out relief. “Oh the lonely days are gone, I’m coming home.”
Our deepest worry is not about death, but about being here in life alone.
Literature wraps its arms around our poor human lives, sometimes brushing our cheek with sympathy, sometimes slapping us, sometimes holding us tight while we struggle and scream. There is literature about death, of course, but always mixed with something else as well, as in Homer’s Iliad. There is literature about the thousand ways we move into the world, trying to find our place in it, such as Catcher in the Rye. But the literary topic that can consistently catch the heart and hold us is loneliness.
Other than, perhaps, disappointed astonishment, loneliness is the essence of human existence. This is our lives. Practically from birth, we are trying to escape from the profound loneliness we are born into, and so we get in line with Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina and the guy who was sitting in a corner at the cafe. The worst thing about standing in this line is that you think you are the only one in it.
How much will you endure to avoid loneliness? Is a crazy relationship that makes you periodically miserable better than being alone every evening? Is an empty marriage with no connection better than waking up alone on Saturday? Would you fly to the other side of the world to meet someone whose language you don’t even know, if there is a promise of companionship?
I’ve written more than once on the topic of loneliness, in poetry, short stories, and novels. I’ve had cause to write about it. As a human being, I have stood often in that bleak and pointless emptiness, where even breathing seems like a stupid waste of effort. And as an writer, I have joined the thousands of artists who have tried to express the ache of wanting to hold out a hand to anyone who will take it. I have joined Simon and Garfunkle. I have joined Vincent van Gogh, who said, “One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul, and yet no one ever comes to sit by it.”