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Arthur Brooks and C.S. Lewis on the Cure for Loneliness and Inner Ring Syndrome

The modern world is a lonely place. So what are you going to do about it?
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Arthur Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute, writes a column at The Atlantic on the vast topic of happiness. His remarks are consistently thoughtful, encouraging, and oftentimes convicting, particularly with his latest post, which addresses loneliness.

Over half of Americans think no one knows them very well, Brooks says in his essay. Men in America are very unlikely to develop new friendships after age thirty. Marriage and birth rates are falling, and in general, our modern world simply isn’t well suited for deep and abiding friendships. Brooks refers to this as the “Poe syndrome.” The 19th century poet Edgar Allen Poe was a recluse, and preferred to spend his days alone and uninterrupted. The introverts in the room can surely relate. But paradoxically, the way to get over loneliness and isolation is to stop expecting others to come to the rescue and instead pay attention to the lives of others. Brooks writes,

Follow-up questions demand actively listening to the other person, a practice essential to knowing them. In other words, you must pay attention to what they tell you, with an intent to learn from it. That contrasts with how we often listen during conversations, especially in academic settings: We’re waiting to talk. Real listening also requires being truly present and mindful when you are engaged with the other person — offering the gift of your whole self, undistracted by other matters or, God forbid, your devices. Research suggests that this combination of active listening and mindfulness is central to relationship quality.

Why It’s Nice to Know You – The Atlantic

I had a friend who told me that the way to actually gain friends is being a friend to other people. It’s not what a lot of us want to hear when we’re blue and lonesome, but it’s possible to devolve into a kind of self-pity when we feel that others aren’t talking to us. C.S. Lewis, the great Irish writer and Oxford don, wrote an essay called “The Inner Ring” where he talks about the perennial longing to be included in exclusive groups. It doesn’t matter what the “Ring” is. It could be a literary society, a prestigious university, or a biking club. We want to get “in” so we can bear the status and mystique of the insider. Lewis writes,

Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one.

Innerring – CS Lewis Society of California

It’s so easy to be motivated by a lust for insider knowledge, to be associated with the prestigious, the interesting, the intellectual, etc. I could enter a PhD program without actually wanting to read any books; it’s possible I could simply be motivated by wanting to the type of guy who has a PhD in his back pocket.

These two essays, read together, can reframe the loneliness crisis. Brooks and Lewis both recommend being okay with being the “outsider.” As Lewis quips: “Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”


Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is a prolific fiction writer and has written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is a contributing writer and editor for Mind Matters.

Arthur Brooks and C.S. Lewis on the Cure for Loneliness and Inner Ring Syndrome