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You can be loved and still be lonely. Philosophy can help explain why

You’ve probably heard it said that the loneliest place in the world is in the middle of a crowded room — and as the holiday season approaches — this might be something a lot of us experience. 

But, philosopher Kaitlyn Creasy takes that a step farther.  In a new piece in online magazine Aeon, she argues that you might have unconditional love in your life, you might have family and friends, and still feel lonely. And Creasy thinks philosophy can help explain why. 

The Show spoke with her more about it and the personal reason she wanted to write about it to begin with. 

Interview highlights

KAITLYN CREASY: I remember first starting to think about this piece in May of this year, because I was feeling extremely lonely and was trying to make a sense of this feeling. I was kind of confused about why I'd be feeling lonely, because I wasn't spending my days in solitude or anything like that. I have a super and supportive, and smart partner, and a toddler, and a sister who I'm speaking with on the phone several times a week. So, how can I feel lonely?

So, I was driving around and remember that I had recently picked up a book that had a chapter on loneliness. I searched out a podcast by that author, Kieran Setiya, to try to make sense of my feelings. And as he was moving through his account of loneliness, I started to think, "Well, that's part of the picture, but that, that doesn't really make sense of what I'm feeling." So I should, I should try to develop my own account in order to get a fuller picture, both for myself and for others, because I had the sense that kind of feeling I was experiencing wasn't just something that was unique to me.

The longest story probably starts two-and-a-half years ago when my toddler was born. I love him with the whole of my heart. And I can't imagine a life without him. But becoming a parent was an extremely transformative and identity-shattering experience for me — as it probably is for a lot of people. I hadn't considered that it might threaten my ability to pursue the intellectual and professional life in which I was pretty deeply invested.

You're talking about this major life change and this these feelings of loneliness for you. You write in the piece also about how this happened to you before when you came home from studying abroad in Italy. Is this something you think happens to people a lot when they experience a big life change like that?

CREASY: Yes, definitely. So, certainly when we go through transformative experiences, when we go through these big life changes, where we feel that we are somehow utterly changed by the experience, these experiences also give us opportunities to reflect, I think, on the needs that we have and on our very identity itself.

And as this happens, we can start to realize that certain needs that we didn't previously have aren't being met or that who we are now is not someone that the friends that we have around us are yet able to see, recognize and affirm. So having a kid was hard for me because this big life change also resulted in a kind of recognition of just how fundamentally I saw myself as a philosopher. I was someone doing philosophy; I was someone who saw it as a fundamental part of my identity.

You're a philosopher, as you said. So, let's talk a little bit about the philosophical lens that you bring to this idea of loneliness and the idea that you can be lonely, even when you have, like you said, these kind of deep relationships and be loved by other people, but still feel this way. Break that down for us, how you approach it.

CREASY: Yeah, often we will feel lonely, not just when we don't have our worth recognized unconditionally as a person. But when we don't feel seen by the people around us as the person that we are. Or, when we come to feel that certain of our needs aren't being met by our friends or those with whom we have loving and a firm relationships.

We change all the time as people. So this is probably common experience for a lot of us — your life shifts or you change in a fundamental way, and then how do you keep those relationships? Is it too easy you think to sort of lose those relationships as we change?

CREASY: Yeah, I'm sure that it is. So, one thing I try to emphasize in the piece is that loneliness can happen often of this sort as a result of big life changes, transformative experiences. But really, we're changing all the time. Our friends are changing all the time.

So, it will just be the case sometimes that we're not getting certain new needs met that our friends maybe aren't able to meet them, and so on and so forth. So, it might be easy to think that maybe our friends will never see us, and to think that we should get more distance, and drop these friendships or change these relationships. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Often the people who we're not feeling seen by are very, very important to us and we're very committed them. So, one way to try to actively intervene in alleviating loneliness can be to try to articulate certain needs that you have to your loved ones, that you might better position them to meet those needs. But of course, it might be the case that those people really can't meet those needs.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.