A man stands alone on the beach looking out to sea: a big sea, a gray sea, with big, threatening waves breaking onshore. The world is big and he is little and this is the best place on Earth to get that impression, to remind himself, to let it seep in, to understand it physically, in his body. You are not special, human, the world says to him. You are not even all that powerful, boy.
The water is a shade of gray darker than the overcast sky. The sea and the sky meet at a line that’s not a line, but a gentle arc revealing the curvature of the Earth. It’s the line beyond which no man can go, the horizon; over its edge there is another one. The scene, the vast empty sea, the vast empty sky, overwhelms the man on the beach, makes him look small by comparison, insignificant, alone, a man without a friend, or a companion, or a lover. Something about him tells me he is a North American man. It’s the water. It looks cold, and familiar, violent: the Ancient Angry Atlantic, my old friend and enemy. The man is looking east; or maybe it’s just my imagination. I don’t know. But that’s the orientation I always seem to have with the ocean; it is always east of me. The Pacific screws me up.
Kurt Vonnegut said in an interview that “the great American disease is loneliness.” This man looks lonely, alone, but not discontent, somehow. Not despondent. Perhaps sad, maybe depressed, but not suicidal. He seems to appreciate the solitude he has wrapped himself in, this quiet time, this timeout. He is lost in thought. Or lost in no thought. He’s having a mindfulness moment, a Zen moment. Maybe he’s practicing the Zen Way of Solitude.
Why would Vonnegut say that loneliness is a particularly American disease? Is it our technology? All the stuff we have that’s well-meaning, technology originally meant to bring us closer together, to keep us in communication with each other, but that actually works the other way around and works to pry us further apart? Gone are the days of really cheap gas and really expensive phone calls. Now the car stays parked in the garage, or alongside the curb, and the telephone follows wherever we go. If someone told you to go the nearest pay phone and give them a call, where would you go? We text and email and Facebook and Tweet and Tumble and YouTube and Facetime and Skype. You name it and we do it over the airwaves, WIFI through space and time. You can’t hide. You have to borrow a book from the library to get instructions on how to become invisible, to escape detection, to become the guy on the beach looking east over the Atlantic.
The thing is that this kind of technology is available world-wide now. Loneliness can’t be a solely American malady based on technology availability. There must be another reason. Could it be our reliance on medication to overcome depression? Maybe the drugs that keep the depressed person from committing suicide also keeps them confined to the house, to a room in the house, unmotivated to seek out companionship. Those that do venture away from the domicile, don a flat face, a face that sends a message: “don’t talk to me, I don’t feel like meeting you.”
Or maybe half of America is on the medicine and the other half needs to be.
Together they comprise a population of selfish people who care about only what happens to them in their own cloistered world. We wrap our cars around us to go places. We don’t walk. We don’t ride bicycles. We don’t expose ourselves to the elements, or to each other. We seek to hide behind tinted glass and a ton of hurtling automobile. We wrap ourselves in this weapon of mass destruction so that we might survive an encounter with a similarly armed citizen we don’t really want to meet. We wrap ourselves in the car to get to the beach to contemplate the vast emptiness of open ocean and the cloud-covered sky, alone, away from the crowd.
We go there to get away from you.