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2017 Reading Challenge

Jill Elizabeth has read 2 books toward her goal of 150 books.
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Book Review: Four Seasons of Loneliness by J.W. Freiberg

“It’s important, my mind rambled on, to be able to be alone, to be at peace with oneself, and to maintain one’s integrity, even in a crowd. But it’s equally important to be connected to others, to nurture the attachments one has to family and friends, which protect against loneliness the way an umbrella protects against rain. The challenge, I said to myself, is to be able to do a good job of being alone and a good job of being together; two very different skills indeed.”


I was contacted about this book by the publicist, and it was a most fortuitous event when it happened. I am a lawyer, by way of studying philosophy, as well as a life-long reader. The initial email was intriguing to me, given those facts, to say the least:

According to author J.W. Freiberg, loneliness is at the heart of many of the problems we face – as individuals and as a society. Freiberg, a social psychologist-turned-lawyer, certainly has a unique perspective. He’s adapted the stories of four clients from his practice in his new book, Four Seasons of Loneliness: A Lawyer’s Case Stories, where he shows us real-life examples of how people have handled (or not handled) loneliness. He offers answers to:
– What happens when loneliness engulfs us?
– How do we manage life when the absence of adequate connections becomes an excruciating hunger?
– How do we seek to again find these emotional bonds that sustain us?

During his extraordinary decades-long career as an attorney, Freiberg consulted on hundreds of cases involving clients affected by chronic and debilitating loneliness. He reveals how loneliness can impact us in every season of our lives. A fascinating cast of characters emerges:
– the traumatized teenager forever branded as a sexual predator
– the man who spends the prime of his life in solitary confinement in Mao-era China
– the truck driver whose self-education isolates him from his community
– the professor at the end of his life who has vast knowledge about the history of love, but none to call his own.

With that as my set-up, I expressed resounding interest in the book. When it arrived, its lovely cover immediately caught my eye – and now that I’ve finished the book, I’ve come to realize that the artwork is not only visually appealing but also poignantly appropriate in its encapsulation of the turning tides of time and the life-cycle of solitude and loneliness…

The book opens with an explanation of what it is intended to cover – this isn’t loneliness in the “I’m bored today” or even the “my [insert important personality in your life] just left/died/moved away” sense. What Freiberg is talking about – and warning against – is ontological loneliness. Cosmic loneliness. An utter and complete lack of intense personal connection beyond the borders of one’s own self. The stories are heartbreaking because they force us to think about what it would mean to be truly, epically alone, to have literally no one know who you really are. I don’t know how common this type of loneliness actually is – I really rather hope not very, because if these stories taught me one thing, it is that there is almost no perceivable happy ending for people who truly suffer from it. They may develop coping mechanisms to get through (and even seemingly enjoy) daily life, but on the whole, the truly lonely life is a devastating state to contemplate and must be an even more devastating one to live…

You’d think that, with this type of ultimate isolation at its core, the book would be difficult to read, full of hopelessness and despair. Ironically, it is not at all. Perhaps this is because Freiberg has a lovely, engaging, conversational writing style. He must be a phenomenal letter writer – he has a marvelous ability to make a one-sided presentation of information feel like a back-and-forth dialogue. It helps that large portions of the stories he relates are presented in the story-tellers’ own voices, but it’s more than that – even the introductory and explanatory texts have this feel, which makes the book an easier-than-anticipated read. But perhaps it is also because, through the presentation of these case studies, and a very concise and well thought out epilogue/conclusion, Freiberg manages to explain not only what true loneliness looks like and why it is a problem but – more importantly – how to prevent it from taking over one’s life.

This is a lovely, thoughtful exegesis on connection and isolation, on life and love. The latter two are topics that receive a lot of attention; the former (especially isolation), not so much. I think people are afraid to talk about loneliness and isolation, afraid to admit to them – they are powerful forces, with tremendous ability to undermine and break down, and they’re often misunderstood (accidentally or deliberately) as synonyms for inner strength or independence or stoicism. But despite how the terms are often presented, they are NOT interchangeable. To be a strong and independent individual requires connectivity, it isn’t weakened by it. That perception is, I think, all too common – and due, in large measure, to an inappropriate conflation of dependence and connectivity. Connections make us stronger – they imply give AND take; dependencies make us weaker because they are all about the take. Dependence inherently carries with it isolation – a removal of everything BUT the thing/person/fact of dependence. Freiberg does a lovely job of presenting these complex ideas without explicitly telling you he is doing so. He sets up his case studies as stories, but if you look behind the front-lines of those stories you realize rather quickly that he has used a deft hand to insert lessons and insights of significant complexity into the seemingly straightforward tales.

I cried through significant portions of the first case study, and at the conclusions of two of the three others. Yet, ultimately, I feel hopeful – not hopeless – after reading the book. Freiberg needs to be credited with teaching a major lesson about the importance of awareness – awareness of our connectivity in and to the world, of the dangers of isolation and rationalizing its dangers away, and of knowing not only ourselves but also others. This is a marvelous exploration of the human psyche – and soul – and the interconnectedness that grounds both to create full, actualized, human beings. I look forward to more from Dr. Freiberg – I’m sure there are many other hidden aspects of the human condition that his insightfulness could help bring into the light…

J. W. Freiberg holds a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, an MA and PhD from UCLA, and a JD from Harvard Law School. He was formerly Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Sociology at Boston University, and simultaneously a member of the Centre d’Études des Mouvements Sociaux in Paris, where he taught Sociology and Social Psychology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. In addition to having held positions at several of Boston’s oldest and most prestigious law firms and serving for a decade as Chairman of Weston Patrick, he is the author of the highly acclaimed books, Critical Sociology: European Perspectives and The French Press: Class, State and Ideology, as well as more than thirty-five articles, book introductions, and other scholarly works on social psychological and legal issues. His writings have been translated into French, Italian, and Japanese. During his career, Freiberg has been awarded a Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship, a National Science Foundation Research Fellowship, and a Centre National de al Recherche Scientifique Fellowship. He continues to practice law on a reduced basis, serves as a Justice of the Peace for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and lives in Boston with his wife, near their children. For more information, visit his website.

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