Daniel Schreiber (45), journalist and writer, lives alone in Berlin. He’s had affairs and affairs, lived together twice as long and planned a future with one of his lovers for years. He broadly imagined what that might look like. An old farm near Berlin. He will feel connected through common interests, endless conversations, and passion. It will be a hospitable home, where there is always room for visitors and room for great dinners. In the garden he grew fruit and vegetables: raspberries, morello cherries, apricots and various kinds of peaches, green Italian turnips, radicchio del Castelfranco and Borlotti beans.
The house with a large garden did not come. Relationships passed.
“The first months passed, then the years when I had no relationships, and eventually relationships also became scarce,” Schreiber wrote in his book. Single, which came out this month in Dutch translation as Single. In it, he weaves his personal story, experiences, and feelings with the theories and ideas of philosophers, scientists, writers, and artists. Is it possible to live the good life alone, without a romantic relationship, he wonders. Can friendships be a cure?
Never before have so many people lived alone as now. The Netherlands has 3.2 million inhabitants, 18% of the total population. In Germany, this concerns 17.3 million people (more than 20 percent). Recent British research shows that one in ten Londoners feels very lonely, and that was the case in New York in March this year for nearly one in six residents. British economist Norina Hertz has argued that we have entered a crisis of loneliness The only horn (2020). Reasons: neoliberalism, individualism, globalization, digitization.
But, says Daniel Schreiber, when we talk to him via video link about his book, crisis of loneliness is not a word he likes to use. There is often a political agenda behind this term. Sad longing for the old days, for the traditional social relations of marriage and family. We must not go this way.”
And Schreiber says that feeling lonely is different from being alone. “There are also people who have 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 withdrawing 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 large family, and as a child I enjoyed reading or walking the dog alone in the woods. Forget everything around me, immerse myself in my thoughts. Of course I like to do things with other people, but I also like being alone at home. I like sticking to my circadian rhythm without having to answer to anyone about it.”
Has the pandemic made you feel lonely?
Loneliness means something different to everyone. Some people actually feel lonely when they are alone at home for an evening, and others hardly suffer from it. But everyone feels lonely sometimes. And if that’s been the case for a long time, most people suffer. The Harvard scholarship study, a long-running study that has tracked the mental and physical health of hundreds of Harvard graduates and their children since 1938, shows that close relationships are an important predictor of a good life. People without it get sick more often and usually die earlier than people with a rich social life. During a pandemic, I’ve been coming back on myself. My social life by going to the theatre, going to the movies, giving lectures – everything stopped. My friends who have been in relationships have focused on their family lives.”
How was that for you?
“For most people, of course, their world got smaller because of the pandemic. But for those who lived alone, all familiarity disappeared. I felt depressed about it. I became hypersensitive about other people’s behavior towards me. What they said or not. You see danger and rejection everywhere, even Where there might be none at all. My friends had their own problems and I didn’t want to disturb them with my loneliness.”
Psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann famously wrote an article in 1959, Loneliness. In it, she describes, among other things, the shame surrounding the concept of loneliness. People find it difficult when a person is alone, as if they can get hurt. This weakness reminds all of them a great deal of their own vulnerability. For those who feel lonely, this is a challenging area of strength. You are lonely, but you know that you will alienate others if you show it. Thus loneliness becomes a secret fraught with fear. 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 the concept of American philosopher Lauren Berlant. We all have an idea of what our lives should be like: economic independence, wealth, family, and the perfect love relationship. But we live in a world where a large percentage of people are not successful or even those dreams are unachievable for them. Many people work hard, but they will never become economically independent. Not even in our European society. Most of them want a relationship or a family, but many of them don’t succeed. In commercials and in books and movies we see: a romantic relationship is the greatest thing that can be achieved. This is the norm. If you don’t, you’ve failed.”
This feeling of failure is more common among LGBT people, she writes.
“As an eccentric person, you fall outside the norm anyway. The effect of this was examined by psychologist Alan Downes in his book, among others Velvet Fury. It describes how gay children and youth learn early on that their desires are less “normal” than those of heterosexuals. There is already a feeling of shame, this feeling of always having to compensate for something, to fight for something. This affects your relationships. “
How do you deal with that?
“My life as a gay man has sometimes been accompanied by shyness. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to recognize that better and better. I also sometimes recognize it in other gay people, and transgender people – and try to respond to it with acceptance and love. That doesn’t always work.”
“And I could do more and more with the idea that Downs also mentions in his book: At a certain point, you sort things out. Say goodbye to your ex-life based on strategies to avoid shame and rebuild it.”
Are you adjusting expectations?
“Yes, just as I did with friendships. In the pandemic, I felt like I came second or third to people in whose lives I thought I had played an important role. When I thought of my friends, there was always a trace of rebuke, disappointment and anger. It was hard for me to I accept that I can’t count on them like I always hoped.”
What changed this feeling?
“Gradually, by getting out of town and spending a few months in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, by going hiking, doing yoga, and reconnecting with myself, I came to an understanding of myself. I learned again not to see being alone as exclusively negative.”
How do you feel about your friends now?
“I saw that my reaction to them also had something selfish about it. I had somewhat forgotten that friendship is based on freedom and not on coercion or obligations. According to the philosopher Jacques Derrida, friendship by definition is accompanied by giving space to the other. He writes in his book Politics de l’amitie: “I leave you, that’s what I want” – a kind of friendly declaration of love.
And back to the question you raise in your book, can friendships be therapy?
“I’ve learned: Sometimes I can count on my friends, sometimes I can’t. Sometimes they leave me alone, sometimes they go with me. Friendship exists and is valuable, despite the uncertainty sometimes attached to it. Philosopher Simon Weil called it a ‘miracle’. A balance between closeness and distance. I can Go ahead with it.”