This article is an excerpt from our free ebook Escape Routes.
Three weeks before Christmas 1993, Wolfgang Dircks died while watching television. Neighbors in his Berlin apartment complex hardly noticed the absence of the 43-year-old. His rent continued to be paid automatically out of his bank account. Five years later, the money ran out, and the landlord entered Dircks's apartment to inquire. He found Dircks's remains still in front of the tube. The TV guide on his lap was open to December 3, the presumed day of his death. Although the television set had burned out, the lights on Dircks's Christmas tree were still twinkling away.
It's a bizarre story, but it shouldn't surprise us. Every year thousands of people are found accidentally days or weeks after their solitary deaths in the affluent cities and suburbs of the Western world. If a person can die in such isolation that his neighbors never notice, how lonely was he when alive?
Forget about the Information Age: we live in the age of loneliness. Decades ago, single-person households were rare. Usually only widows lived by themselves. Nowadays, they are increasingly the norm. In a world where marriage rates are dwindling, children are cautiously planned for (or avoided by contraception and abortion) middle age is synonymous with divorce, and old age means a nursing home, people are bound to be very lonely. Imagine: only a quarter of American households consist of a nuclear family. None of this is to say that all was well in previous decades - it emphatically was not. But it is probably safe to say that loneliness has never been as widespread as it is today. How many of your neighbors or colleagues do you really know as friends? How many people in your church are just faces? How often do you turn on the television because you lack companionship?
Studies suggest loneliness is so hazardous that people who are physically healthy but isolated are twice as likely to die during a given decade as those who live surrounded by others. What is the cure? Surely there must be more to our cravings than can be answered by the simple presence of others around us - who hasn't felt lonely in the middle of a crowd? Indeed, that secret sense of isolation is the worst kind. Kierkegaard, by way of example, writes in his Journal that though he was often the life and soul of a party, he was desperate underneath: "Wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me. But I went away. . .and wanted to shoot myself. "
Such desperation is a common fruit of alienation from our true selves. If it seems an exaggeration, recall your own adolescence. How often were you insecure or lonely, unable to measure up to all those people who seemed to have everything - people who were smart, fit, and popular? And even if you were well-liked, what about your hypocrisy, your deceit, your guilt? Who hasn't known the weight of these things? Multiply self-contempt a million times, and you have the widespread alienation that marks society today. What else is it that stops strangers from acknowledging each other in the street, that breeds gossip, that keeps co-workers aloof? What else is it that destroys the deepest friendships, that divides the most closely knit families and makes the happiest marriages grow cold?
Given our human imperfectability, all of us will disappoint or be disappointed at some juncture; we will hurt others and be hurt; we will be mistrusted, and we will mistrust. But all this does not have to be. We may justify the walls we throw up as safeguards against being used or mistreated, but that does not mean that they really protect us. If anything, they slowly destroy us by keeping us separated from others and encouraging pessimism. They result in the attitude summed up by Jean-Paul Sartre, who said that "hell is other people. "
How far we have fallen from our real destiny! If only we were able to break down a few of the barriers that separate us, we might not resign ourselves so quickly to the idea that they are an unavoidable fact of life, but open our hearts to the richness that human experience affords - both in the sheer miracle of our individual existence, and in the joy of meaningful interaction with others. Further, we might catch a glimpse of what it really means to be a part of this universe - this great community that includes everything from the tiniest clusters of quivering microbes to the unimaginable vastness of spinning galaxies and stars.