Friday, April 30, 2010

Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude by Emily White

Rating 4/5

This is the kind of book that reminds me why I love psychology, social psychology in particular. I enjoyed this book, and I think it's unique and makes a valid point. A few criticisms though. For one, the author gets a bit muddled in places, but that can be excused by the fact that her topic is rather muddy. It was part memoir, so I suppose I can forgive the fact that some of her judgments seemed quite subjective, like endorsing loneliness categories defined by a researcher but making fun of a similar division made by a journalist.

The biggest problem I had with this book is the anger bombs the author placed in the first half regarding depression. There is a lot of discussion about how depression and loneliness are not the same, which I agree with, but she repeatedly calls depression "the blues". And "just the blues" and "nothing but the blues". She says she's experienced depression herself, and even uses the term "noonday demaon" to describe it, but I have to wonder if she even read Noonday Demon. You NEVER call depression "the blues". It's the biggest insult to anyone who's ever suffered with real depression. The author seems to be making light of depression in order to emphasize the seriousness of loneliness, and I was really offended by that. I suffered from severe, suicidal depression for twenty years. I was also lonely. I'd take loneliness over depression any day, but they are BOTH serious afflictions. At one point while reading I was so furious about this "just the blues" issue that it ruined a good chunk of the book for me. Fortunately the second half of the book didn't have these landmines. I was disappointed that someone who points out how much research she did into her topic didn't do enough research into depression to avoid such a simple pitfall. It does take away a lot of respectability from her work, and I'm surprised her editor didn't catch it. It would have been so easy not to have made that mistake!

In addition, White pooh-poohs the use of the internet to make connections and help with lonely feelings, though it doesn't seem like she really tried it out. Personally, being stuck at home with chronic illness, Twitter is the one thing standing between me and insanity, and I know a lot of other people who feel the same way. It's not ideal (the ideal would be to have loving people actually present with you), but it does actually help.

Well, with the complaints out of the way, I would like to talk about the book's merits. The fact of its existence and the author's unique approach to the topic makes it a must-read. It's true, loneliness is such a taboo subject, we all like to ignore it and hide it and pretend we never feel it. Numerous studies mentioned in the book make it absolutely clear, however, that loneliness is very much a health problem - emotionally and physically. Our bodies ail when we are lonely. White calls on governments to take loneliness under its wing and do something about it, and I fully agree.

Facts and theories interspersed with the author's own personal struggle with loneliness makes for interesting, engaging reading. I was kind of disappointed that throughout the book she alluded to having overcome it, only to find out that it was because she'd found a romantic partner. And on top of that, she still says she's lonely for a wider social circle. So, there are no answers in this book, only hints at what could be done from a societal perspective. Basically, you just have to keep trying to be social and surround yourself with people, relax, and hope you are lucky enough to meet that special someone. *sigh* Right.

Anyway, despite that, I thought this book was fascinating, and I hope it starts a shift in perspective when it comes to loneliness. It's nothing to be ashamed of or hidden. It's not our fault, it doesn't mean we are defective. A large part of loneliness is luck, genetics, and circumstances, things which we have little or not control over. White has written a brave "coming out" book for the lonely, and I must applaud her courage.

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