The Company of Others

Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness
By Kristen Radtke
352 pp. Pantheon. $30.

I’d been wanting to read this as soon as I first heard about it. Isn’t that title intriguing? I certainly thought so … a book about loneliness — American loneliness at that.

But what does it mean, “American Loneliness”? Are Americans lonelier than those in other nations? Maybe loneliness is more prevalent not just among Americans, but among those who are the most connected — the most online. That makes sense, after all, doesn’t it?

Studies have found that sites like Instagram and Facebook lead to greater loneliness among younger generations, most especially, due to the unconscious way in which users tend to compare their own, seemingly mundane, lives with those who appear to be living their best life. Ironically, being connected to the outside world to a greater degree than ever before may be making many of us miserable.

You may have heard of “suicide contagion” — that is, documented studies showing that suicide has the tendency to lead others to commit suicide. Loneliness is likewise contagious, something this book is no cure for.

While I very much enjoyed “Seek You,” it certainly fostered in me feelings of isolation and loneliness — so much so that I breathed a sigh of relief when I finished it, as though I had been holding my breath the entire time. It’s beautiful but dark, and this darkness led me to both devour the book and to fixate on the subject matter even when I wasn’t reading it.

The Pacific Northwest, where I currently live, feels like the ideal setting for the film version of this. An often gloomy, fog-choked landscape where the sun, when it does appear, feels like a stranger who’s lost their way. After reading “Seek You” and delving into other articles on the topic, I’ve taken more notice of the solitary light on in the apartment building across the street, in the blank look of passers-by on the promenade. Are they, I wonder to myself, lonely? Am I?

I would have waded even further into the darkness, unable to resist, but there is so much about loneliness that Radtke doesn’t cover here. Fortunately, she provides a terrific list of “lonely” texts in her notes at the end of the book that will certainly allow me to imbibe more than the recommended number of books on the topic if I so desire.

There is so much here to comment on, so much that is noteworthy. On page 317, Radtke cites an experiment run by Sherry Turkle, founder of the MIT initiative in Technology and Self, in which Turkle went into a nursing home and provided patients with “battery-operated baby dolls that made lifelike infant sounds.”

Some of these dolls became the closest companions these patients had, and one man reportedly even talked to his doll, telling it “everything.”

“We should all be uneasy about human interaction substituted for soothing robots,” Radtke notes, “as if the goal is just to placate someone until they die.”

It’s easy to point to examples like this one or of that “anti-loneliness” Moomin cafe in Japan where patrons sit with stuffed animals in order to feel better, and mock them, to point at the seeming absurdity of it all. But how many of us do something strikingly similar in our own day-to-day lives without even realizing it?

Is talking to a dog, or a cat, really that much different? They can’t understand us, and yet visits to my friends’ homes — back in those glorious pre-pandemic days — have revealed that many of us are under the mistaken belief that we’re Dr. Dolittle. One quick scroll through my Instagram feed shows people I know dressing their animals up, cuddling them in bed, and otherwise treating them like children.

Like the dolls in Turkle’s study, are our pets just replacements for actual human interaction?

Equally fascinating is the newfound popularity of “cuddle companions,” to use one name for the phenomenon, “snuggle buddies” to use another.

“The longing for contact,” Radtke writes, “is so pervasive that it’s created an industry of paid platonic touch, staffed by an army of surrogates to enact the physical intimacy that’s traditionally been a built-in by-product of regular life.”

What does it say about contemporary life that we’re so starved for physical human contact that we’re willing to pay for it? Or has it always been that way? Isn’t prostitution, too, simply a profession driven by the desire for human contact?

Radtke reports that psychologists call our desire for human touch “skin hunger,” which, aside from being a great title for a film about cannibalism, is a haunting name for what far too many of us apparently lack — actual physical contact with another human being.

What’s the solution to loneliness? You won’t find it here, at least not in a direct, easy-to-read prescription. But perhaps what you will come away with is a desire to seek out contact with other human beings — to not replace such contact with cheap substitutes.

Perhaps, if nothing else, “Seek You” serves to remind us of the value of our fellow humans.

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