A book called “Loneliness as a Way of Life” (University Press, $23.95) might seem like an odd title from a political science professor at Amherst College, but Thomas Dumm has come up with an intriguing volume whose slimness belies its often-scholarly tone and wide range. Begun as his wife was dying of cancer, Dumm set out to investigate the subject of loneliness as a way of understanding the world around him.
This modern world might be the “way of loneliness,” but readers should not shy away from the state. In fact, Dumm asserts that loneliness is the impetus that gives us autonomy, the ability to make decisions on our own terms.
Although the feeling might be painful, it is only through loneliness that we become true individuals able to make rational decisions and able to interact with others as rational beings. And, in an odd twist, it is this true sense of self-awareness that leads us to seek the community of others: “Our lonely way of being connects the innermost to the outermost, the personal to the political, and the trauma of individuals to the formation of the state in strange and attenuated ways.”
There is, however, a flip side to all this freedom. Dumm contends that the modern world’s confusion and fragmentation can lead to loneliness because they can block our relations with others. Although we might find solace in many — some would say too many — distractions, which our lives throw at us seemingly at every minute of every day, these distractions obscure but don’t obliterate the separation that we have from others. What Dumm really is seeking, it sounds like, is that we embark on a deep self-examination, a meditation of sorts, a consideration of who we truly are in our souls.
Using a range of literary texts and essays, he suggests that loneliness is a creation of the modern age. In fact, he calls King Lear’s daughter Cordelia the first truly modern person because of the decisions she makes.
In the end, though, this is a deeply personal book. Dumm is on a quest, and he finds that it is through his use of language, his ability to write, that he has “come to realize that as alone as we are, we are not only alone.” It’s a beautiful sentiment when you think about it. We must embrace what is not here to truly experience what is here. It is a journey that we all must take, each in our own way. Some would call it spirituality. Some would call it religion.
Dumm has a simpler explanation. Check out where you are. Acknowledge what you have and what is missing: “(B)eing present at the place of our absence is what it means to experience loneliness.”