June 14, 1996

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

There are many hells, but the most intolerable hell is loneliness.

Don Marquis

"The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" was a book and movie title. I never read the book or saw the movie. It was just the idea that appealed to me. The idea that a person who is ahead of the pack, or way behind, can be very lonely. The only people who do not seem to be lonely are those in the middle of a herd. I say "seem" because I suspect that many people in the middle of the pack are also lonely.

I have been a loner for most of my life. I am very uncomfortable in the middle of a pack. For someone born and raised in New York City, that may seem strange, but it isn't. Despite the large numbers of people, a large percentage of city dwellers are very lonely. People can live next to each other and never speak to one another.

I have always suspected that most people are lonely, even when in a crowd. I have no way of knowing this because, aside from myself, I can only get an inkling of someone else's loneliness from the people closest to me. Even then, I suspect that most people share only a part of themselves even with their closest friends, and they consider themselves blessed to be able to do so. We are solitary individuals trying like hell not to feel alone.

I imagine that a snake is never lonely. It is born alone and, except for a brief mating period, lives alone and dies alone. We, on the other hand, are rarely alone during our infancy. Until we learn to be alone, aloneness can be terrifying. Many of us eventually learn to deal with it; some better than others.

I suspect that every child believes that only he is lonely and that everyone else is not. If he could reach out to his neighbor, he would find that his neighbor is also lonely and afraid. If they touched each other, neither would be as lonely.

Why then, don't people reach out to each other? What are they afraid of? Why don't lonely women and lonely men, living in adjacent apartments, reach out to each other? Each is afraid of being hurt. I wish that I could say that those fears are groundless. Unfortunately, they are not. However, most of us tend to fear much more danger than actually exists. Emotional injury, while painful, is rarely fatal. We also bring into our adulthood the fears of our childhood.

I was a first child and my brother wasn't born until I was 6, so we lived in separate worlds. Aside from our parents, we seemed to share little as children. I decided that it wasn't such a good idea, so I had more children, and had them close together. Did it help? I don't think so. My close-together kids seem just as alienated as only children.

I think that most of us cherish those moments of closeness -that surcease from loneliness-that come occasionally. They don't, it seems, come often enough.

Next column

Return to the Personal Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page