I wonder if a heart can rust… And without a heart, can one be an artist?
By the end of the 19th century, Edgar Degas was one of the most famous French painters alive. Considered as one of the founders of Impressionism, his paintings captured psychological complexities and haunting portrayals of human isolation that had never been seen before. The themes of his art imitated his life closely as he openly believed that “The artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown.”
Degas was known by his peers to be brilliant and cruel. He was never afraid to give unsolicited and cutting criticisms to other artists. It was common practice for artists of the era to sit for portraits for each other, and while Degas’ masterful portraits of others hang in museums today, no other painters ever asked Degas to sit for them. Perhaps this was because they didn’t believe Degas would be willing to sit, or that they didn’t trust him to not be overly critical of the work. Either way, Degas had his own art and made sure everyone knew he was a misanthropic bachelor who should not be disturbed.
This outward persona of an “old curmudgeon,” as the novelist George Moore called him, was — as biographers would later uncover — a public facade. In private, Degas suffered from growing paranoia and loneliness. He secretly longed for the joys of children and a wife. “I am in bad form.” he would write to a friend. “I wonder if a heart can rust… And without a heart, can one be an artist?”
There is a myth among creatives that one must choose between work and companionship. If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had romantic visions of hiding out in a remote cabin, finding company in your imagination, alone and undisturbed. Yet, there is a thin line between the power of solitude and the pitfalls of loneliness.
Sacrificing a certain amount of social time is often needed to accomplish great things. Yet, guarding our hearts against the distractions that come with human connection has dangerous consequences. Lack of human connection not only stifles creativity and our ability to relate to others but severely damages our ability to self-regulate our bodies and minds.
Loneliness — whether one “feels lonely” or not — is a subtle dagger. It puts us at odds with our nature and goes against the very fiber of what makes us human.
You can take all the personality tests, read horoscopes, and decide where you fall on the spectrum of introvert and extrovert, but there is no denying our basic human wiring.
The agricultural revolution of 10,000 BC fundamentally changed how the earliest human ancestors lived. For millions of years prior, these ancestors lived in nomadic bands of about 50 people, enduring all aspects of life together. All actions were motivated by what was best for the tribe and members of the tribe would almost never be alone. Doing what was best for the community wasn’t a question of morale, but a necessity for survival.
The agricultural revolution allowed these small hunter-gather communities to grow exponentially. Days of hunting and gathering slowed as farming and industry took over. Suddenly, people could accumulate personal property — a concept that hadn’t existed for millions of years. Members of the tribe could exist as individuals outside the tribe and — for the first time in history — go entire days without interacting with others.
It takes genetic adaptations around 25,000 years to appear in humans. The changes that have occurred in our modern society over the last 12,000 years has hardly been enough time for our species to adapt. Our newfound ability to grow and change as individuals is a spectacular feat, however, the growing disconnect between ourselves and society is impossible to deny.
It is easier than ever to isolate ourselves today. Being an active member of a community has never been more optional. And in a world where we put chasing our passion above all else, it is socially acceptable to put work above quality time with others.
As we reduce the necessity for human interaction for survival, the results are terrifying. Despite advances in science, medicine, and technology, our modern day society is riddled with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, suicide, and anxiety in human history. A review of research published in 1988 found that social isolation is on par with high blood pressure, obesity, or smoking as a risk factor for serious illness and early death.
Humans are primates. We share 98% of our DNA with Chimpanzees. And like the primates of today, our human ancestors who lived 20,000 years ago would never go days without human contact as it would make them extremely vulnerable to predators.
Lack of connection to other humans attacks our health like termites, infesting our system of self-regulation. Loneliness leads people to latch onto vices like overeating, drug abuse, or promiscuous sex in efforts to self-sooth. These types of coping mechanism are used for a variety of psychological issues but almost always stem from a deep and primal need to care for and be cared for by other people.
You can take all the personality tests, read horoscopes, and decide where you fall on the spectrum of introvert and extrovert, but there is no denying our basic human wiring. We need to be seen and we need to be heard. We need to be connected to other humans.
I’ve fallen into the void of disconnection from friends and family while believing that I must sacrifice quality time with others in order to write. Like Degas and others, I bought into the idea that an artist must choose between the two. Not only did I feel the guilt that came with dwindling relationships, but the seeds of disconnected depression set in. Slowly but surely, my work took longer to complete. Accomplishments meant less and less. A mental fog rolled in and grew each day I isolated myself from others.
Forging meaningful connections isn’t always easy. If you’ve ever moved to a new city without knowing anyone, you’ve probably felt the struggle to find your place in a new group of friends. The digital age might make it easier to “connect” with others, but it also brings a speed and pace that makes evolving those connections into meaningful relationships increasingly difficult.
Luckily, we can still get many of the same biological benefits of human interaction from micro-actions. Research by Dr. Cacioppo in his book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection shows that simple “random acts of kindness” can have massive effects on how connected we feel to others. It doesn’t take hours of coffee dates and dinner parties to connect. We can scratch our evolutionary itch by simply being useful and helpful to strangers.
Dr. Cacioppo describes a “helpers high” that occurs when we do simple things like complimenting a stranger, holding the door open for others, or giving extra gratuity. Actions like volunteering soup kitchens or visiting the elderly feed our souls and human hardwiring in ways that lead to massive benefits in our own well-being. Chasing the helpers-high can be a miraculous win-win for all involved.
Degas became one of the most celebrated artists of his time, yet was never able to climb out of the pit of loneliness he dug himself into. His cruel wit and long-held belief that an artist had to choose between work and other people left him to grow old alone, without a wife or children. He slowly went blind, adding to his bitterness, and died alone in Paris at the age of 83.
What we can learn from Degas is that human connection is not a luxury but a necessity. We aren’t as far away from the days of hunting and gathering as it might seem, and in order to live a full life — and a true self-actualized existence — human connection is non-negotiable.
For art to imitate life, one must have a life. And without the company and connection of others, life amounts to very little.