Loneliness and Longing


Loneliness, and Longing

Mary once said. “We have needs, wants, desires, and then there is this other thing … and this is important, so pay attention: before the big bang, before time itself, before matter, energy, velocity, there existed a single immeasurable state called yearning. This is the special force that on the day before days obliterated nothing into everything. It is the unseen strings tying planets to stars. It is the maddening want we feel from first breath to last light.”

(1)(voiceover by (character) Mary Shannon at the end of an episode of “In Plain Sight.”)

Things–all things–are, as we are becoming acutely aware, connected, and when we ask WHY a person performs an otherwise inexplicable behavioral pattern, if we follow the path of connections, we can often say “BECAUSE THEY ARE LONELY.”  This is implicit in the biological need for SOCIALIZATION, the quality of which is our ability to manifest what is unique within us, our INDIVIDUATION

One of the catchphrases that we see often in Art & Organism refers to a need we can view as biologists: “to know and to be known”  (balancing individuation and socialization throughout development)  

With respect to knowing one’s self, look in on our A&O webnotes on SELF.    Then respond like a DEEP ethologist to what has been called “the perennial problem of the artist” –some tension (a Kuhnian “essential tension”?) between one’s work (such as “the artist’s work”) done for some private need and the “crown bestowed or denied by the fickle tastes of a contemporary public.”     Maria Popova reminds us that acclaim (or lack thereof) “has little bearing on how the work itself will stand the test of time as a vessel for truth and beauty, whether it will move generations or petrify into oblivion. Walt Whitman nearly perished in obscurity when his visionary Leaves of Grass was first met with scorn and indifference. Emily Dickinson, virtually unpublished in her lifetime, never lived to see her work transform a century of thought and feeling.”   [is the longevity of one’s idea or work of art a version of “fitness” as a biologist understands it? ] 

  • “In our own culture, obsessed with celebrity and panicked for instant approval, what begins as creative work too often ends up as flotsam on the stream of ego-gratification — the countless counterfeit crowns that come in the form of retweets and likes and best-seller lists, unmoored from any real measure of artistic value and longevity. How, then, is an artist to live with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world, and go on making art?”
    • [Here is where I find a kind of comfort in Emerson’s “Circles:” “… Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”   You cannot know if and where the ripples will end … will have their effect on the future.


  • relevant snip of conversation  “Hello stranger  //  Well, hello there stranger // Have you lived here all your life? // Not yet!” (enshrined in a lyric by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman (Arkansas Traveler

For August 19, Garrison Keillor read a poem about young girls affection for a favorite uncle that got married after a long wait–it ended with: “we didn’t love him quite as much. / He was our same gallant uncle / but distant now, distracted by having / what he could no longer long for.”  (from “Favorite Uncle” by Wendy Mnookin)


The Marginalian on C.S.Lewis view of EXISTENTIAL LONGING:

Nothing kidnaps our capacity for presence more cruelly than longing. And yet longing is also the most powerful creative force we know: Out of our longing for meaning came all of art; out of our longing for truth all of science; out of our longing for love the very fact of life. We may give this undertone of being different names — Susan Cain calls it “the bittersweet” and Portuguese has the lovely word saudade: the vague, constant longing for something or someone beyond the horizon of reality — but we recognize it in our marrow, in the strata of the soul beyond the reach of words.

No one has explored the paradoxical nature of longing more sensitively than the philosopher, storyteller, beloved Narnia creator, and modern mystic C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963) in a sermon he delivered on June 8, 1941, which later lent its title to his 1949 collection of addresses The Weight of Glory (public library).

Lewis — who thought deeply about the significance of suffering and the secret of happiness — writes:

“This desire for our own far off country [is] the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering.”

As Lewis considers the illusory nature of these shorthands for our longing, we are left with the radiant intimation that “the thing itself” is not something we reach for, something beyond us, but something we are:

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

For Lewis, who was religious, this notion of “the thing itself” — the ultimate object of longing — was anchored in his understanding of God. For me, it calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s exquisite epiphany about the meaning of art and life, found while strolling through her flower-garden:

Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”




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(1) (Mary’s voiceover at the end of an episode of “In Plain Sight.”)

Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.