At their root, all of our addictions, self-harming behaviors, neuroses, and mental illnesses, arise and then come to dominate us, when we feel as though we are completely alone in the experience of something unbearable, something devastating, something terrifying, or something incomprehensibly bad.
We associate loneliness with being abandoned by others, but there is more to the harm caused by loneliness than simply feeling unloved by others. An essential component of loneliness is the repudiation of one’s efforts or ability to love and, more specifically, to still be capable of loving in the midst or aftermath of the unbearable, devastating, terrifying, or incomprehensibly bad. Loneliness cuts us to the core precisely because when we reach to others to try and love them, we discover that our best efforts to love are treated as undesirable, inappropriate, grotesque, or repulsive.
Freud comments on this: “The realization of impotence, of one’s own inability to love… has an extremely debilitating effect on self-feeling.”
We witness the outcome of this in the lives of people who are deprived of housing whom the City classifies as non-compliant, as those who are deviant because they, in the words of City bureaucrats, “choose homelessness” and refuse the help offered to them (a hotel room, a cot at the Salvation Army, and so on). Apart from a good deal of practical reasons people have to refuse that help—such places might be unsafe for the person, the person may have been treated in a violent and dehumanizing manner last time they stayed at one of those places, the person may not want to be separated from their life partner or animal companion, or whatever else—refusal to accept help at the level of basic needs (in terms of Maslowe’s Eurocentric, post-Enlightenment hierarchy of needs), can be a way of asserting one’s basic human dignity and that, first and foremost, a person must be treated in a way that demonstrates they are considered a person worthy of being loved by others and capable of loving others.
I was prompted to think about this when I encountered the following quotation from Lacan’s lectures on the psychoanalytical concept of transference. Lacan says that “it is so desire which goes beyond demand not be extinguished that the subject who is hungry does not let himself be fed… libido refuses the satisfaction of need to preserve the function of desire.”
In other words, our core desires, the central demands we make of others, are not strictly about food and shelter and socks and gloves. They are about how we are or are not treated as members of a beloved community. And if someone thinks they can be over and done with me and my needs simply by offering me some granola bars and a cot in a church basement, I might very well refuse that offer so that people recognize, hey, there’s a lot more to me than my hunger and my exposure to the cold. Or, in Lacan’s language, I refuse the satisfaction of basic needs to prevent the other person from thinking they have satisfied my core desires. I refuse to accept your provision for my basic needs unless you first recognize not just that I am a person who deserves to be well loved but equally a person who is capable of loving well. If that does not occur, then I am just being offered charity by a cruel people in a comfortless world—a world I will then refuse to join.
And comfort, it should be added, is an essential part of love. Russ Leander, an art therapist working in the AIDS ward of a Chicago hospital during the AIDS epidemic, has this to say on the subject: “For me, the ultimate message, meaning gift, whatever of this epidemic is that there are many different ways to heal. If you can’t heal or cure, then comfort. Truly care for people.”
So, also, in our current epidemic of COVID, housing deprivation, austerity, and greed. There are many different ways to heal. Are there are many avenues people pursue for comfort in a comfortless world. Substance use, self-harm, and going mad are all ways to pursue that when you feel all alone. As Christopher Bollas says in Three Characters, “At the root of all character disorders there is mental pain… each disorder is an intelligent attempt to solve an existential problem.” And if we, in the limited companionship we offer to others, cannot heal or cure, then at least, in the midst of their addictions, their self-harming behaviours, their neuroses, and their madness, let us offer people comfort and the opportunity to comfort us and others in return.