Exploring the human experience of separation.
Associate Professor Ryan Christensen (Philosophy) kicked off the winter 2023 Humanities Center Colloquium series with his presentation “Loneliness and Love.” Drawn to this topic by a philosophical desire to understand love, Christensen argued that loneliness is the reason we pursue love.
Christensen gave three new definitions for the human experience of loneliness: first-person loneliness, second-person loneliness, and third-person loneliness. He introduced the concepts by saying, “I am the subject, and I am also the object”—an idea that he further explained in the context of each different kind of loneliness.
First-person loneliness is a sort of loneliness from ourselves where we realize that we are both conflicted in our desires and constructed in our identities. Some identities are created for us, and some we choose to create every day—defining ourselves by choice. The identities we accept and construct are the object in first-person loneliness. We also have conflicting desires that sometimes make us feel like strangers to our identities. We feel divided from ourselves when we have thoughts that don’t “feel like me” and when we have desires that conflict with our identities. These thoughts are the subject in first-person loneliness since they act on our identities. Christensen put it this way: “I am the subject of all the thoughts and experiences Ryan [himself] has.” This kind of loneliness feels like being distinct from the self but connected to the self.
Second-person loneliness is acknowledging that the self is the subject and everyone else is the object because the self can only experience its own thoughts and experiences. “We feel our opacity to each other,” Christensen said. Another part of this second-person loneliness comes from realizing that you are also the object in the eyes of others.
Third-person loneliness is something even more esoteric. To explain, Christensen proposed a thought experiment: imagine that you as a person, with your name and genetics and experiences, did not exist. Most find it pretty easy. You once did not exist, and someday after you die, you will again not exist. However, now think of yourself as “I,” as your deep identity and consciousness of thought, not as your name and traits associated with physical existence. In that frame of mind, it is hard to conceive not existing. This is the feeling of loneliness that is something deeper—a distinction between who we are and who we as our name or outward identity are.
After exploring each kind of loneliness, Christensen explained that loneliness is part of the human experience and love is our attempt to overcome it. He illustrated this with the Greek myth about humans once being whole, having two heads and four arms and legs. Jealously, the gods split all human beings in half. This myth was told to explain why we humans strive to find our “other half,” our soulmate, our love, so we feel whole again. To Christensen, finding your person can fulfill second-person loneliness, but it still doesn’t satisfy first- or third-person loneliness. He purposed that perhaps, in this life, we cannot fully overcome loneliness as part of the human experience.
Christensen left us with complicated questions and a simple lesson. Since loneliness is essentially human, and humans are essentially lonely, if we cease to be lonely, do we cease to be human? Do we become something better? Or maybe it is okay to simply experience being lonely. We can make peace with that part of being human, even as we seek love to overcome it.