Jean-Paul Sartre is a famous pessimist of the human condition.
His magnum opus is entitled Being and Nothingness (not a joke - that’s literally the title): a cornerstone of existentialist thought on loneliness and the human condition. In this book, he explores the idea that the presence of others forces us into a state of self-objectification, where we become conscious of how we appear to them. This self-objectification is a source of existential anguish, leading to the feeling of loneliness that Sartre described as "being-for-others."
Sartre also touched on the theme of loneliness in his play "No Exit" (another cheery title). In this work, he presents a vision of the afterlife where three characters are locked in a room together for eternity. The play's famous conclusion, "Hell is other people," encapsulates Sartre's belief in the oppressive nature of interpersonal relationships, suggesting that even in the company of others, one can experience profound loneliness.
It’s some seriously heavy stuff.
But like many things to do with our wellbeing, interpretation matters. So, instead of “5 Reasons Why We’re Doomed to be Eternally Lonely With No Hope for Escape or Relief” (an article which would have been infinitely easier to write based on the source material), here’s a different interpretation.
1. Loneliness is part of life. Loneliness is an integral part of human existence.
Loneliness doesn’t just come from the absence of company; it’s a fundamental condition of life. It arises from our individuality, the burden of our freedom, and the inherent isolation of our subjective experiences – that no one else truly knows what it’s like to be us, except for us. Sartre teaches us that even in the presence of others, we still have to grapple with the profound feeling of loneliness because we are ultimately responsible for our choices and actions, creating a sense of existential anguish.
Loneliness is not a condition that we need to rid ourselves of. It’s a part of our experience that calls for understanding, acceptance, and exploration. By understanding the role loneliness plays in all our lives, we better equip ourselves to manage it, anticipate it, and cope with it.
2. Sometimes we need to get outside of ourselves. Other times we need to do the opposite. At times, we must transcend our subjective isolation, while at other moments, we need to embrace it.
In moments of despair and isolation, we often seek to escape the discomfort of feeling lonely by connecting with others, engaging in relationships, and striving for recognition. Sometimes, this externalization of the self is an important way that we cope with loneliness. However, Sartre also recognizes that there are instances when we must confront our loneliness directly. In solitude, we confront our true selves, face the weight of our choices, and take responsibility for our existence. This interplay between seeking connection with others and embracing our loneliness as a space where we can learn and understand ourselves better is essential to our wellbeing.
Technology can, does, and should have a role in our lives. We need small interactions on social media as much as we need deep connections with our partners, friends, and loved ones. We also need moments of quiet and solitude – moments of reflection – too. It’s up to us to find balance: how much loneliness, connection, and interconnection allow us, as individuals, to lead a happy, healthy life?
3. Loneliness can be a path towards growth. Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy asserts that loneliness can serve as a pathway toward personal growth and self-discovery.
In moments of loneliness, Sartre posits that individuals are forced to confront their authentic selves, free from the influence and judgments of others. Loneliness, according to Sartre, can be an opportunity to delve into one's deepest thoughts and values, grapple with the choices one must make, and confront the existential responsibility that comes with freedom. This confrontation with loneliness can promote introspection and the development of our sense of self, fostering personal growth, and a more genuine understanding of our existence. We can choose to view loneliness not as a negative state to be avoided, but as a catalyst for self-discovery and the cultivation of a more authentic and fulfilling life.
Loneliness is an uncomfortable emotion for a lot of us. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad for us. Understanding why we’re lonely and what environments, people, and factors in our lives lead us to that feeling can help us understand ourselves and our connections with those closest to us better.
4. It’s hard being us some days. Loneliness is an intrinsic part of the human condition, and some days, it can be particularly burdensome.
Sometimes we can do everything right, but we still don’t feel better. Sartre recognizes that there are moments when the weight of our choices and the responsibility of defining ourselves can make us feel lonely. Even in the midst of social interactions, we may feel a fundamental disconnect from others. Sartre's perspective acknowledges that navigating life isn't easy for anyone. It reminds us that feeling the weight of everything that comes with being human, including loneliness, is an essential part of our wellbeing journey.
Sometimes we just feel lonely. And that sucks. But it’s okay. Life is always full of ups and downs. We can seek out the things that bring us up while accepting and embracing the things that bring us down – these things are not mutually exclusive.
5. Technology may bring loneliness, but we also bring our loneliness to technology.
Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy on loneliness is remarkably pertinent in the context of the digital age, where technology both exacerbates and reflects our inherent solitude. Many thinkers tell us that technology has fostered loneliness by substituting encouraging shallow digital in place of deeper connections, but Sartre's viewpoint reminds us that we also bring our inherent loneliness to our technology. This loneliness is not solely a product of our digital tools but is deeply rooted in the human condition itself.
We talk a lot about how technology is making us lonely, short on attention, and short on compassion. But loneliness existed long before modern technology. We bring out the loneliness in our technology as much as our technology brings out the loneliness in us. We need to think about how we, as builders and users of technology, can bring out the best in our technology so that our technology can bring out the best in us.
That loneliness is and has always been part of the human experience shouldn’t make us feel bad. It should make us feel hopeful. It should reinforce the importance of connection.
That Sartre put these ideas to paper nearly 80 years ago is evidence of this. Technology is not singlehandedly responsible for our loneliness. Maybe we have brought our loneliness to our technology., but there are so many beautiful, positive aspects of the human condition that we can also bring to our technology.
Sartre’s work is a tool for us to think about loneliness and what it means to be human. It’s a tool for us to think about the way we interact with each other and with our technology. Sartre's ideas invite us to critically reflect on our digital behaviours, our online spaces, the implications of technology on our experiences of loneliness as well the implications of our loneliness on technology.