Daniel Schreiber (45), journalist and author, lives alone in Berlin. He had relationships and affairs, lived together twice for a long time and planned a future with one of his lovers for years. He had fantasized a lot about what it might look like. An old farmhouse, near Berlin. He wanted to feel connected through common interests, endless conversations, passion. It would be a hospitable house where there was always room for visitors and space for large dinners. In the garden he grew fruit and vegetables: mulberries, morello cherries, apricots and various types of peaches, Italian turnips, radicchio del castelfranco, borlotti beans.
The house with the big garden never came. The relationships passed.
“The first months passed, then years when I had no relationships, and eventually the affairs also became less frequent,” Schreiber writes in his book Alone, which appeared this month in the Dutch translation as Alone. In it, he interweaves his personal history, experiences and feelings with the theories and ideas of philosophers, scientists, writers and artists. Is it possible to live a good life alone, without a romantic relationship, he wonders. And can friendships be a cure?
Never before have so many people lived alone as now. In the Netherlands there are 3.2 million, 18 percent of all inhabitants. In Germany, it concerns 17.3 million people (more than 20 percent). Recent British research shows that almost one in ten Londoners feel very lonely, in New York this was the case in March this year for almost one in six residents. We have entered a crisis of loneliness, argued the British economist Noreena Hertz in The Lonely Century (2020). Reasons: neoliberalism, individualization, globalization, digitalization.
But, says Daniel Schreiber when we talk to him via video link about his book, loneliness crisis is not a word he likes to use. “There is often a political agenda behind that term. A wistful yearning for the good old days, for traditional social relationships in marriage and family. And we must not go that way.”
And, Schreiber says, being lonely is different from being alone. “There are also people with a partner who feel lonely. In Germany, there was a study that showed that many straight men feel lonely when they are not in a relationship, while many straight women feel lonely in a relationship.”
‘City dwellers are increasingly retreating into privacy bubbles’
And you can also be alone without feeling lonely.
“Yes. I also like to be alone sometimes. I grew up in the country, in a big family, and as a child I enjoyed reading or walking the dog alone in the forest. Forget everything around me, sink into my thoughts. Of course I like to do things with other people, but I also like to be alone at home. I like to stick to my daily rhythm without having to answer to anyone.”
The pandemic made you feel lonely?
Loneliness means something different to everyone. Some people already feel lonely when they are alone at home one evening, others hardly suffer from it. But everyone gets lonely sometimes. And if that is the case for a long time, most people suffer. That Harvard Grant Study, a longitudinal study that has tracked hundreds of Harvard graduates and their children’s mental and physical health since 1938, shows that close relationships are an important indicator of a good life. People who don’t have it get sick more often and usually die earlier than people with a rich social life. During the pandemic, I was thrown back on myself. My social life of going to the theatre, going to the cinema, giving lectures – everything stopped. My friends in relationships focused on their own family life.”
How was it for you?
“For most people, of course, their world became smaller because of the pandemic. But for those who lived alone, all intimacy disappeared. I felt gloomy about it. I became hypersensitive to how other people behaved towards me. What they said, or not. You see danger and rejection everywhere, even where there might not be any at all. My friends had their own problems, and I didn’t want to bother them with my loneliness.”
“Psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann wrote a famous essay in 1959, Loneliness. In it, she describes, among other things, the shame that surrounds the concept of loneliness. People find it difficult when someone is lonely, as if they could be infected by it. That vulnerability reminds them all too much of their own vulnerability. For those who are lonely, it is a difficult force field. You are lonely, but you know that you repel others if you show it. Feeling lonely thus becomes a secret, filled with fear. And that makes it even more lonely.”
We are all (sometimes) lonely
You talk about “cruel optimism” in your book. Can you explain that?
“Cruel optimism is a concept by the American philosopher Lauren Berlant. We all have that idea of how our life should be: financial independence, wealth, a family, an ideal love relationship. But we live in a world where a large part of people do not succeed, or for whom it is simply not even possible to realize those dreams. Many people work very hard but will never become financially independent. Not even in our European society. Most people want a relationship or a family, but many do not succeed. In advertisements, in books and films we see: the romantic relationship is the highest attainable. That’s the norm. If you don’t, you’ve failed.”
That feeling of failure is more common among queer people, you write.
“As a queer, you still fall outside the norm. The impact of this has been studied by psychologist Alan Downs in his book, among others Velvet rage. He describes how queer children and young people learn early on that their desires are less ‘natural’ than those of heterosexuals. There is already a sense of shame, that sense of always having to make up for something, fight for something. It affects your relationships.”
How do you handle it?
“My life as a gay man is also sometimes accompanied by shame. As I got older, I learned to recognize it better and better. I also sometimes recognize it in other homosexuals, in transgender people – and try to respond to it with acceptance and love. It doesn’t always work.
“And I can more and more with the idea that Downs also mentions in his book: At a certain point you put things in order. Say goodbye to your past life based on strategies to avoid shame and rebuild it.”
So are you adjusting expectations?
“Yes, just like I did with friendships. In the pandemic, it hit me that I came second or third to people I thought I played an important role in their lives. When I thought of my friends, there was always a trace of blame, disappointment, anger. It was hard for me to accept that I could not count on them as I had always hoped.”
What changed that feeling?
“Gradually, by getting out of the city and spending a few months in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, by walking a lot, doing yoga, reconnecting with myself, I came to self-understanding. I learned again not to see being alone as something exclusively negative.”
How are you with your friends now?
“I saw that my reaction to them also had something selfish about it. I had kind of forgotten that friendship is based on freedom, not on coercion or obligations. According to the philosopher Jacques Derrida, friendship is by definition accompanied by giving space to the other. He writes in his book Politics of friendship: ‘I’ll let you, that’s how I want it’ – kind of the ultimate friendly declaration of love.”
And to return to the question you ask in your book, can friendships be a cure?
“I’ve learned: sometimes I can trust my friends, sometimes I can’t. Sometimes they leave me alone, sometimes they accompany me. Friendship exists and is valuable despite the uncertainty that is sometimes associated with it. Philosopher Simone Weil described it as ‘a miracle’. A balance between closeness and distance. I can get on with that.”