It's one of Frost's best poems, that one about Abishag (in Frost's words, " the picture pride of Hollywood") sent in to seduce King David late in his life when the kingdom needed more sons and his own wives didn't turn him on anymore. Yet even Abishag grows old. You can't always be a winner. And Frost writes about it. He writes about it succinctly. His poem is slim--seven three-lined rhyming stanzas. It's pithy. It's biblical. And spot-on. I'm sure Frost knew. He wanted Abishag--and all of us who lose our beauty, to know the score: Better to go down dignified With boughten friendship at your side Than none at all. Provide, provide! Apparently science is once more validating what the heart and the Hebrew scriptures already knew: "it is not good that the man (by which we can assume "the woman" also) should be alone." In Genesis this leads to the creation of Eve and thence to the fall and all that--let's save that for another bone-cold, rainy May day. But in the May 13th issue of The Nation, science writer, Judith Shulevitz cites psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann's ground-breaking 1959 essay "On Loneliness" in support of what current medical research has revealed. As she puts it in her article: "Over the past half-century, academic psychologists have largely abandoned psychoanalysis and made themselves over as biologists. And as they delve deeper into the workings of cells and nerves, they are confirming that loneliness is as monstrous as Fromm-Reichmann said it was." Look, nobody is reading this blog because they want to hear about loneliness. On the other hand, most of us know something--to a greater or lesser degree--about loneliness. After all there are those of us--and I number myself among them--who enjoy being alone. I mean, we're okay with those rare, long stretches where we are, simply, alone. But that kind of alone-ness depends on there being a period at the end of those sentences about how happy we are to be alone. I took a writing sojourn away from my daughters--and my job--ten years ago and spent the first four days in a kind of slap-happy writer's trance. No lunches to make! No laundry to do! (No parishioners to visit! No meetings to attend! No sermon to write!) But by day five I was thrilled when close friends of mine arrived in my hidden little hamlet and took me out to dinner. After that I knew enough to limit the length of my solo vision quests. Because I had gotten--so slightly--truly lonely. Well, Shulevitz quotes a ton of studies and doctors and reports that give us all reason to feel glum. To keep it from getting too heavy, I'll summarize: lonely people get sicker more often and die younger. Lonely older people die sooner than less lonely ones. Women are lonelier than men (and men happen to be less lonely than married women). Loneliness can be hereditary. Isolated communities, such as gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic tended to feel more lonely and more isolated than the general population. The less educated are more lonely, as are the poor. And then Shulevitz cites statistics about the vast numbers of Romanian orphans--in a country in which abortion had been outlawed--whose amygdalas and pre-frontal cortexes had simply not developed normally, as a result of--no other way to say it--a complete lack of significant parental nurturing.
She ends her piece with what I hope is some kind of grace note, though I'm not sure I buy it: "At a deeper level," she says, "loneliness research forces us to acknowledge our own extraordinary malleability in the face of social forces.... Put an orphan in foster care, and his brain will repair its missing connections. Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and get less sick from them. Care for a pet or start believing in a supernatural being and your score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale will go down. Even an act as simple as joining an athletic team or a church can lead to what Cole calls “molecular remodeling.”
Or we can take a page from Robert Frost, if we have the means:
Better to go down dignified With boughten friendship at your side Than none at all. Provide, provide!