A “Relaxing and Cooling Loneliness”


Friends is one of those shows that came along after I’d aged out of that type of sitcom, but I got to watch plenty of episodes with my kids, and I developed a fondness for the characters and their foibles. Good old Chandler Bing, charming and anxious, played by Matthew Perry—who was recently found dead.

Perry spent a large part of his adult life in rehab battling addiction. More than any of the other actors, Perry’s physical appearance changed dramatically from season to season. Some seasons he was rail thin, others he was huskier. Everyone knew he was an addict. He didn’t try to hide it.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 23 million Americans struggle with problematic drug use. So Perry, despite star status, isn’t so special. He’s just like a lot of us.

Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times the other day in which she sympathized with Perry’s plight because she too had struggled with addiction.

This passage from Davis had me holding my breath:

I want to tell you something about addiction: No matter who it is or what substance that person is hooked on, loneliness is at its root. For whatever reason — and I have no theory as to why — there are those of us who feel isolated in this world, as if everyone else had some secret formula for getting along, for fitting in, and no one ever let us in on it. That loneliness resides deep inside us, at our core, and no matter how many people try to help us, no matter how many friends reach out, support us, show up for us, it never entirely goes away. It’s vast and shadowy and also part of who we are. Something happens when we discover a drug or alcohol: Suddenly we have a companion holding our hand, propping us up, making us feel we fit in, we can be part of the club. It’s there for us in the empty hours when it seems no one else is.

Many readers commented on the power of that passage and how it spoke directly to them. Others pointed out that loneliness can’t be at the root of addiction. Other factors such as genetics play a big role. And of course there were comments about people being addicts because they choose to use drugs, although a lot more people choose to use drugs than become addicts. No one wants to suffer from addiction.

But that loneliness—who hasn’t felt the isolation? Who hasn’t experienced desperate moments when it seemed everyone else had “some secret formula for getting along, for fitting in . . .”—and we didn’t?

Apparently, loneliness in life is at times inevitable and universal, but must loneliness develop into an existential dread that we simply cannot tolerate?

Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön has written about loneliness and the need to cultivate a “relaxing and cooling loneliness” that undermines our terror of the existential void.

In her book, When Things Fall Apart, Chödrön writes:

Contentment is a synonym for loneliness, cool loneliness, settling down with cool loneliness. We give up believing that being able to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or sense of well-being or courage or strength. Usually we have to give up this belief about a billion times, again and again making friends with our jumpiness and dread, doing the same old thing a billion times with awareness. Then without our even noticing, something begins to shift. We can just be lonely with no alternatives, content to be right here with the mood and texture of what’s happening.

And later, she continues:

We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are. Then loneliness is no threat and heartache, no punishment.

It’s a shame that Matthew Perry couldn’t cultivate that “cool loneliness.” It doesn’t sound easy to do. Nor does beating an addiction.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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