What's Tony Thinking

Loneliness from Another Perspective


Sometime last year the U.S. Surgeon General declared loneliness to be a phenomenon so severe in the U.S. that it constituted an epidemic.

Many factors have been cited as contributing to the epidemic of loneliness including isolation during the pandemic, technology that allows people to interact without personal connection, and the decline of marriage and family. I wonder if there isn’t an additional factor. Call it “romanticizing flying solo.” Or perhaps that we over value independence.

It’s the idea that the best life is one unencumbered by, well, other people. The French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, famously said, “Hell is other people.” A generation ago the psychologist Mary Pipher wrote about the notion that for Americans growing up meant leaving, being on your own. These days many older people speak of a primary goal as they age as not being “dependent” on family.

Here in San Miguel de Allende a mid-sized town in Central Mexico about the only people I see eating alone in a restaurant are fellow gringos, often they are older men, sometimes women. Mexicans generally seem to be part of a multi-generational family. To be clear, eating out alone can be just fine. We don’t always have or need to have company. Still . . .

In Tony Cohan’s memoir On Mexico Time he tells the story of a wealthy ex-pat living here alone. Her two sons in the U.S., one a doctor the other a restaurant owner, “call occasionally, but never come to visit.”

Her maid, Luisa, invites her to a birthday party for one of her seven children. The woman declines, but Luisa persists. Finally, to get Luisa off her back, she relents. Later she describes the party to Cohan.

“‘There must have been sixty people, all relatives or friends of some sort — old people, nursing infants, ranch hands in boots and hats. They were poor, but there were tamales to eat, and pork and tortillas all cooked outdoors, and corn drink, and beer. Everyone seemed so comfortable together. A little band played the sweetest music . . .

“‘Adults held infants who never cried, not a peep. the old people spoke among each other, and younger ones sat with them and listened. There was so much . . .’ She turns to me, her eyes, shining, ‘ . . . warm, simple love.’ She fishes in her purse for a handkerchief. ‘It was the best time I’ve had in years,’ she saying dabbing at her eyes.

“‘Where have we gone wrong?’ she says suddenly. ‘Alone in our houses . . . crowing the whole time about how much freedom we have. The sexes are terrified of each other or at each other’s throats. We’re frightened of commitment. We marry then divorce, preferring our private satisfactions, our careers, to enduring with one another . . . we’ve gone off track somewhere, don’t you think?'”

Readers may accuse me (or Cohan) of romanticizing Mexico. That’s easy enough to do. And, yes, there are plenty of problems in Mexico too. But I’m not sure that loneliness is one of them.



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