No Word for Lonely

The Endangered Culture of Community

“Have you ever been lonely?”

I was leading an English-language discussion group for second-language speakers in Amman, Jordan. I had written the question as an introductory “filler” sort of question—maybe useless in and of itself, but a necessary step to get to the meatier follow-up questions.


The answer was surprising, even slightly offensive. To a normal American, it’s bizarre. Who hasn’t been lonely? Even if you aren’t a very lonely person, surely you’ve been lonely at some point. Loneliness is an innate part of the human experience… isn’t it?

As I pressed and prodded for a different answer, I found myself almost beginning to feel angry. Of course you’ve been lonely! How dare you suggest you have never been lonely? I had to stop and ask myself why I felt so threatened by the idea that maybe this Jordanian just hadn’t ever experienced loneliness, that what I had assumed was a universal part of the human condition may be more specifically Western and modern than I had realized.

A New Disease

I have mixed feelings about loneliness. On one hand, feeling lonely sometimes may be an inevitable side effect of introspection and soul searching. A friend of mine suggested that maybe Arabs don’t feel lonely because they are emotionally stunted by the oppressive communal mindset they grew up in and don’t even have a sense of self that is developed enough to feel lonely. And maybe there is something to that; people in traditional cultures could sometimes stand to think outside the box a bit more.

One the other hand, is it possible that self-exploration, self-awareness, self-care, self-improvement, self-actualization, and all that is a bit … overrated? Could it be that people were doing just fine before the poets and psychologists showed us just how important our precious self was? Could it be that the craziness and general societal disintegration we’re witnessing is connected to that?

Hannah Arendt, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and later a political philosopher and scholar of totalitarianism, wrote:

What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.

I had my doubts about that assertion the first time I heard it. How could loneliness ever have been a marginal experience? But the testimony of people I’ve met outside the West seems to support the idea that in some societies, it is. Indeed, it can be difficult for me to talk about loneliness in Arabic, because the most common word for “lonely” (وحيد) also just means “lone” or “only.” The idea of loneliness as a distinct emotional state doesn’t seem to be very well developed in Arabic language and culture.

It wasn’t always so well-developed in the English-speaking world, either. In a powerful essay on the connection between loneliness and totalitarianism, Arendt scholar Samantha Rose Hill writes that the word “loneliness” entered the English language around 1600, but didn’t come to refer to an emotional state until around the time of the Industrial Revolution, at which time usage of the word shot up.

Alienating Forces

Technological progress, clearly, is one cause of this novel development. It’s not just smartphones and TikTok, either—community in Western industrial society has been in the process of disintegration for a long time.

I remember an elderly co-worker of mine lamenting the disappearance of houses with big front porches for visiting with neighbors. She said that a great aunt of hers had told her it wasn’t the advent of the television that made the culture of porch visiting go away, it was the radio. People used to habitually drop by their neighbor’s house after supper. But after the radio became popular, that became a social faux pas because you didn’t want to interrupt somebody’s after-dinner radio program. So evening front-porch socializing faded away, followed by the front porches themselves.

If the radio was bad, the TV was worse. Back in the early 90s, Elisabeth Elliot was writing of loneliness as an epidemic afflicting the nation. And then came the internet. And then the internet became attached to our persons at all times. More than a decade into the society-wide experiment on the effects of smartphones and social media on developing minds, the results are in. Social media and smartphone use, it turns out, is highly destructive. It has led to social isolation, depression, anxiety, mental illness, and a rapidly increasing teen suicide rate.

As Ross Douthat vividly put it, a society that “looked stable and successful 15 years ago now looks more like a hollowed-out tree standing only because the winds were mild, and waiting for the iPhone to be swung, gleaming, like an ax.”

Enclaves of Community

Fortunately, not every society in the world has been fully transformed—yet. Many neighborhoods in the Middle East and the rest of the developing world still retain a communal atmosphere.

A neighbor recently asked me why I hadn’t come to his house recently. “What are you waiting for, an invitation?” he asked. He wasn’t being facetious. In this culture, inviting yourself to someone’s house isn’t rude—in fact, not inviting yourself over can be rude, because it indicates you don’t care about the relationship.

This has the downside that you are liable to unexpectedly become a host at inconvenient moments. But the upside is that you live in a community, a neighborhood—not in one hermetically sealed box among a collection of hermetically sealed boxes called “homes.”

Sadly, that culture is gradually collapsing. More people live alone; more people live on social media or streaming platforms; more people feel misunderstood and isolated. Some parts of Amman (the richer parts) feel almost like America; people live in nice houses, drive back and forth to work, and never need to interact with their neighbors at all. (A lot of ex-patriots settle in that part of the city, because it feels more comfortable.) As Western technology is dispersed and distributed around the world, the world is gradually transforming into the image of the West. Even in the Middle East, it’s coming. The Middle East is behind the West, but it’s coming, inexorably.

I’m afraid of what will be downstream of that change. In the passage quoted above, Hannah Arendt argued that loneliness is a necessary precondition to totalitarianism because strong communities are a barrier to totalitarianism. Would-be totalitarians actively work to tear down the social institution that create community, because once people are lonely and isolated—atomized individuals—they will grasp onto anything they can trust. And the totalitarian ideology will be there, waiting to fill the void.

The best way to push back against totalitarianism is to push back against the cultural conditions that allow it to thrive in the first place. We need to put the “culture” back in “culture war”—and to have a real culture, you need real community. Winning debates on social media, or in school board meetings, or even in United States Senate floor, won’t be enough. Even the greatest political victories traditionalists could achieve would just be band-aids on a gut wound. And the next generation would peel them off when we come into political power. The spiritual health of our society will go up and down, but always more down than up, until the more fundamental forces that shape society change. To actually rebuild society, or even to slow its disintegration, we are going to have to come together and be neighbors again.

We can’t wait for “society” as a whole to do that. It starts with us—not us as individuals, but as our communities, whatever they are.

That’s good news, isn’t it? Waiting and hoping for society to change can be depressing. But before society can change, we need to change, and we don’t have to wait for that.

Further Reading:

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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