November 30, 2010

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND – John Donne, “Meditation XV11”

Themes of loneliness and isolation dominate much of literature. Carson McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim are two examples that come to mind, but the list is lengthy. For all the attention writers give to the problem, research shows life in western cultures is more positive than our literature reflects. What’s more, we get happier with age.

AARP, the magazine for older Americans reports on a survey which reveals that 43% of adults between the ages of 45-49 are lonely, but the number drops to 41% among those between the ages of 50-59. By the time one reaches one’s 60’s only 32% report feeling lonely. At 70 only 25% of that population feels lonely (Nov/Dec. 2010 issue. Pg. 69).

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza observed that “Man is a social animal,” and Rousseau agreed. In his work, “The Social Contract, the French thinker supposes we huddle together for mutual protection. Socrates came to the same conclusion centuries before. He thought so well of that tie between the individual and the group that he accepted an unjust death rather than escape and break faith with the laws of his society. 

From a writer’s point of view, I think we stay together because we love to tell each other stories. Isn’t gossip the simplest form of storytelling? And look how popular that is!

We need to share our wonder at ourselves and of the universe. Our stories, myths and philosophies attempt to create cosmologies sized for the human brain. Like laughter, awe is an emotion best shared. It’s nice to know that in contrast to our other faculties our sense of communion improves with age.