Kristen Radtke Considers Another American Epidemic: Loneliness

I started writing about loneliness by accident. It seems too simple to say I wrote about loneliness because I was often lonely, although I was. It was 2016, during an election cycle that left many of us feeling wrenched from reality, and suddenly I was seeing loneliness everywhere. I’d walk down the street or step onto the subway during my morning commute and find that I couldn’t stop watching people who were physically alone: someone eating a sloppy gyro on the curb while staring blankly into space, an exhausted nurse still in her scrubs nodding off on the bus, the bodega cashier scrolling absently through his phone before a backdrop of condoms and Fritos pinned to the wall. There was nothing verifiably lonely about any of these people, and the fact that I identified loneliness in them said a lot more about me than it did them. I wanted to see their loneliness because I was feeling it myself.

So I started to draw. I drew people pacing in parking lots, asleep on the subway, glimpsed through their apartment windows. I thought for a time that this was as far as the project would go, but as I kept drawing, I realized I had questions I couldn’t answer. Was there a difference between being alone and being lonely? Why don’t we talk about our loneliness very often? What is loneliness, exactly, and why do we feel it at all?

I began reading books with titles like “Alone Together” and “The Lonely American” and “Loneliness as a Way of Life,” along with a whole slew of scientific and self-help books I’d have been embarrassed to be seen reading in the public spaces I was drawing. Every book brought with it more questions, and the project got broader: How is loneliness depicted in pop culture? What’s the connection between loneliness and violence? What about politics? What about gender? What actually happens to our bodies when we’re isolated for too long, and, in a country that prides itself on individualism and privacy hedges, how do we fix it?

What I found was much worse than I’d imagined. Basically: Loneliness will kill you. Lonely people are more likely to have heart attacks and cancer and alcoholism and even common colds. Loneliness can make you assume the worst in others and see enemies in harmless strangers, and instill a creeping paranoia about your unlovability. Loneliness is an emergency. I spent nearly three years fixated on the problems that I thought isolated Americans most: our insistence on individualism, our unrelenting attitudes toward work, our cavernous political divides. I wrote about the cold contours of the internet, theories about raising socially adjusted children and how gun violence partitions us in fear. Then, as public spaces emptied out and malls and schools closed during the first lockdown in 2020, there were no longer any masses. Individualism crumbled as a concept, and those who clung to it were jeered; we were reminded that we are only as healthy as the sickest among us. Mutual aid groups formed, and we again recognized what we owe one another as human beings. And still, we were lonelier than ever.

One of the best descriptions of loneliness I’ve ever read is from Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets,” in which she writes, “Loneliness is solitude with a problem.” Whether or not a person is lonely isn’t necessarily tied to how much time one spends alone, or how many friends one has — our personal thresholds for loneliness are biologically programmed into us before we’re even born. It’s something we’re powerless to change, which is perhaps why Thoreau spent a pleasant two years at Walden Pond without losing his mind, yet your extroverted friend becomes frantic after a few hours with no text messages. Thoreau wasn’t more evolved or more in touch with his solitude; he was likely biologically predisposed to find comfort in it.

Writing is an inherently solitary act, and doing it well often means spending great swaths of time alone. When we’re writing about traumatic or complicated material, that sense of aloneness can be compounded. After a day of writing, I’ve found myself in conversation with a friend or, before the pandemic, in a crowded room at a party, and felt unable to converse in a way that had once felt so natural. My brain was still rooted in that solitary space, which is a decent allegory for what chronic loneliness can feel like: The longer we remain in a state of social unfulfillment, the more difficult it can be to re-enter our worlds.

It’s not a leap to suggest that many writers are inherently lonely people, because writing is a form of seeking, a desire to put something into the world that doesn’t yet exist. Emily Dickinson called loneliness “the horror not to be surveyed,” and what is writing if not crying out for someone to bear witness to a part of who we are? I have read very few books that are not about loneliness in some way, even unintentionally — a searching protagonist, a disconnected character, a desperate quest to answer a question that a writer has found no other way to solve.

“It is more ominous than any oblivion, to see the world as it is,” the poet Carolyn Forché wrote in “Blue Hour.” Our job as writers is both to see the world for what it is and to imagine a better one into being. I don’t think there is any greater loneliness than looking directly at the untamable fury of our world. But it’s also the only hope we have of finding our way to one another again.