Sociability Archives - The School Of Life

It’s an embarrassing confession, but for a certain group among us, it’s fair to say that a great deal of our lives is spent asking essentially the same question, week after week, always with the same blend of frustration, despair and puzzlement: Why am I so lonely?

Why, in other words, do I so often find myself at odds in social groups, why can’t I more easily connect with people, why do I not have more friends worthy of the name?

Edward Matthew Ward, Byron’s Early Love, ‘A Dream of Annesley Hall’, c. 1856, Manchester Art Gallery

It’s tempting to jump to the darkest conclusion: because I am awful, because there is something wrong with me, because I deserve to be hated.

But the real answer is likely to be far less punitive and in its way far more logical: we, the isolated members of the tribe, are lonely for a very firm and forgivable reason: because we are interested in introspection, and they – the others — for all their intelligence and wit and strength of mind, are not.

They may have many hobbies and passions and lots to say about a host of things, but they are simply not interested in looking deeply inside themselves. It is not their idea of fun to go into their childhoods, to trace the links between their emotions and their actions or to lie for a long time in a bath or a bed processing events in their interior lives. Introspection is not their thing. They haven’t told us this in so many words — and they never will; they don’t even realise it perhaps. We simply have to surmise that this is the case on the basis of external evidence: that we never feel we have much to say to them, even though – objectively – there might be so much to share. 

It’s the lack of introspection that explains why conversation with them so often gets stuck in odd places: discussing the price of train tickets or the best way to prepare muffins or what so-and-so from university (whom we never really knew or liked) is now doing. It explains why, when we try to nudge the conversation onto something more intimate and vulnerable, we seem somehow never to manage and end up in yet more rounds of discussion about the sports results or the new political scandal.

They aren’t necessarily cold, but it can certainly seem that way because they aren’t interested in communicating what is really going on in their hearts. Sometimes we can be surprised when, out of the blue, they tell us that they consider us to be a close friend. 

We should accept that most of our acquaintances – however much they might in theory want to be friendly – do not want to do so at the cost of looking inside their own minds.

And we for our part are lonely because we are operating with a notion of intimacy that is far less common than we torture ourselves by imagining. We will be blessed if we meet just one or two people in a lifetime who want to play as we do. The rest of the time, we shouldn’t compound our problems by feeling lonely that we’re lonely. It’s painful but utterly understandable; our favourite pastime, however noble it might be, is a very unusual one indeed.

It’s natural and beautiful to strive to be a nice person. In a world full of cruelty and thoughtlessness, nice people are committed to being generous, sympathetic and gentle. They never want to cause anyone to feel defeated or to lose sleep. They will go to great lengths to spare others tears. It sounds especially lovely.

Nevertheless, it seems impossible to go through the whole of life being nothing but kind. Sooner or later, we are all called upon to take decisions that, even as they protect things we very much care about, will ruffle feathers, generate upset and may lead us to be (at least for a time) violently hated in some quarters.

We might, for example, have to tell a romantic partner that, in spite of our deep affection for them, we don’t see ourselves being together for the long term. Or we might have to tell a child that it’s now bedtime and that there can be no more stories. Or we might have to explain to a colleague that we don’t see them fitting into a team and that they might be better off looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Such situations can be agony for committedly ‘nice’ people. There are great temptations to delay the moment of truth or avoid it altogether. The ‘nice’ still deep down hope that they might – while always smiling and agreeing – stay friends with everyone. Their distinctive sensitivity has often have been fostered by childhoods in which the consequences of being honest and forthright were especially difficult. They might have had a parent who flew into a rage or threatened suicide whenever an awkward idea was laid before them — perfect preparation for an adulthood in which there appears to be no option but to tell everyone what they want to hear.

However, being truly nice involves something ‘nicer’ still than constant agreement and emollience. It means signalling to others what one’s value system is and sticking by it, even at the occasional cost of public opposition. It means taking on the burden of telling others where we stand and ruining their afternoon or month in order to save their long-term future and our own. It means accepting that there might be choices to be made between loyalty and sincerity and effectiveness and bonhomie.

Mature people have come to terms with the tragic need to acquire something even more important than popularity: a character.

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A lot of evil is done in the world by people who can’t imagine that they have any power to hurt anyone. It’s their sense that nothing is at stake in their behaviour towards others that leads them to ignore the rules of politeness and humanity – and to kick people as if they were plated in armour.

They are – in this respect – paying homage to childhood. Think of the situation of a young child, of perhaps six, who has fun mocking a parent’s double chin or the wrinkles around their eyes. To this child, the parent is still, in many ways, an invulnerable deity. They live in a remote, impressive world of work, credit cards, driving and the news. How could someone of such stature be hurt by a comment about their less than perfect physique by a tiny person who can’t spell properly? 

But the child is missing the point. Their words do hurt. They can make their parents cry (in private). The child simply can’t grasp how desperate and anxious their parent might be, how every morning they might stare in dismay into the bathroom mirror at the visible signs of ageing that speak to them relentlessly of a wrongly lived-life. The parent, out of dignified generosity, has shielded their child from their own fragility. And now their child is paying them a beautiful if misguided, compliment: a belief that they are beyond suffering.

Something related may happen when employees get together to gossip about the person they work for. In their imagination, the boss is so far above them that it couldn’t possibly matter what they say about them. It’s only when they themselves move to senior positions that they start to realise how vulnerable the person in charge might feel, how completely normal it is to want to be liked (even if you have a seat on the board) and how imperfect your self-esteem might be. 

This idea casts a useful light on the activity of particularly dangerous people online. Their venom isn’t the expression of a feeling of power. Rather, the troll tends to feel like a medieval vagabond outside a heavily fortified city, hurling insults and threats at what they take to be comfortable inhabitants sleeping behind meters of stone walls lined by vigilant troops. They want to hurt, but they don’t in any way actually imagine they can; that is what renders them quite so vicious.

True kindness may require us to take on board a very unfamiliar idea: however young we are, however forgotten and ignored we feel we are, we have a power to cause other people serious damage. It isn’t because we aren’t wealthy or revered in elite circles that we thereby lose a capacity either to comfort or to wound strangers. We become properly moral, and properly adult, when we understand that we may all, whoever we may be, ruin someone’s day, and on occasion, through a few incautious and misplaced words, their life.

A lack of confidence is often put down to something we call shyness. But beneath shyness, there may lie something more surprising, pernicious and poignant. We suffer from a suspicion of ourselves that gives us a sense that other people will always have good reasons to dislike us, to think ill of us, to question our motives and to mock us. We then become scared of the world, speak in a small voice, don’t dare to show our face at gatherings and are frightened of social occasions because we fear that we are ideal targets for ridicule and disdain. Our shy manner is the pre-emptive stance we adopt in the face of the blows we feel that other people want to land on us. Our shyness is rooted in a sense of unworthiness.

Photo by Patrick Pierre on Unsplash

As shy people, when we find ourselves in a foreign city in which we know no one, we can be thrown into panic at the prospect of having to enter a busy restaurant and order a meal on our own. Dogged by a feeling that no one especially wants to know us, that we are outside the charmed circle of the popular and the desirable, we are sure that our leprous condition will be noticed by others and that we will be the target of sneering and viciousness. We unknowingly impute to strangers the nasty comments that we are experts at making to ourselves; our self-image returns to haunt us in the assumed views of others. We imagine that groups of friends will take mean delight in our solitary state and read into it appalling conclusions about our nature. They will see right through our veneer of competence and adulthood and detect the deformed and unfinished creature we have felt like since the start. They will know how desperate we have been to win friends and how pitiful and isolated we are. Even the waiter will fight to restrain their desire to giggle at our expense in the kitchen.

A comparable fear haunts us at the idea of going into a clothes shop. The sales attendant will surely immediately sense how unfit we are to lay claim to the stylishness on offer. They may suspect we lack the money; they will be appalled by our physique. We lack the right to pamper our own bodies.

It can be as much of a hurdle to attend a party. Here too our fundamental imagined awfulness is perpetually at risk of being noticed and exploited by others. As we try to join a group of people chatting animatedly, we dread that that they will swiftly realise how unfunny we are, how craven our nature is and how peculiar and damned we are at our core.

The novelist Franz Kafka, who hated himself with rare energy, famously imagined himself into the role of a cockroach. This move of the imagination will feel familiar to anyone sick with self-disdain. We, the self-hating ones, spontaneously identify with all the stranger, less photogenic animals: rhinoceroses, blobfish, spiders, warthogs, elephant seals… We skulk in corners, we run away from our shadow, we live in fear of being swatted away and killed.It is no surprise if, against such an internal background, we end up ‘shy’. The solution is not to urge us blithely to be more ‘confident’. It is to help us to take stock of our feelings about ourselves that we have ascribed to an audience, that is, in reality, far more innocent and unconcerned than we ever imagine. We need to trace our self-hatred back to its origins, repatriate and localise it, and drain it of its power to infect our views of those we encounter. Everyone else isn’t jeering, or bored or convinced of our revoltingness; these are our certainties, not theirs. We don’t have to whisper in a circumspect manner and enter each new conversation, restaurant or shop with a sheepish air of apology. We can cast aside our introverted circumspection once we realise the distortions of our self-perception, and can come to believe in a world that has far better things to do than to despise us.

In 1821, the 45-year-old English painter John Constable went out on to Hampstead Heath and did something very loving. He set up his easel and looked closely at an elm tree. He observed the weathering across its bark, the lichen around its base, the moss clinging to its roots; he looked at the water stains that ran down its sides, its canopy of toothed celadon-green leaves and its purple-black buds. He spent around forty hours over a few weeks lavishing attention on an object to which most of us have never accorded more than a minute. Commenting on this capacity after his death, Constable’s friend and biographer, C.R. Leslie, remarked: ‘I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms’.

John Constable, Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, c. 1821

Constable’s move feels central to the definition of love because when we consider someone through the eyes of love (it might be a cherubic child or a criminal, a beggar or a derided celebrity), what we are first and foremost doing is studying them closely, solicitously and with benevolence. For once, we are enquiring what might actually be motivating them, what they might have been through and the distinctive forces that have shaped them, as particular as the patterns on bark.

The close studies of painters are touching because we recognise in them a degree of care from which we have been exiled in the ordinary run of life. We unconsciously sense how much we secretly long for steady attention to be brought to bear on the world’s trees and flowers, domestic scenes and vistas, people and ideas. It may have been a very long time – perhaps early childhood – since someone took a proper interest in details about us: sincerely enquired how we are feeling, looked at each of our fingers, caressed the back of our heads or delved into the nuances of what excites and saddens us. We recognise an attitude of consideration in art by which we are nourished and sustained in life.

Through the eyes of love, we are not crushed into a headline, our case is not dismissed with a rapid ironic sneer, and through thoughtful engrossment, we can expand into our true multi-faceted selves. The early-19th-century Danish painter Johan Thomas Lundbye may have been engaged in drawing flowers, but he was at the same time modelling for us how we might behave when someone comes to tell us that they are getting divorced, or when a child has destroyed their room in anger, or when we read about the trial and imprisonment of a stranger in the newspaper. We too might follow Lundbye’s implicit lesson and take the time to scrutinize every particularity; we might care to see to the underside of things; we might note what is beautiful and tender in inauspicious places.

Johan Thomas Lundbye, Sketch of Flowers, 1840

In 1836, the Austrian painter Jakob Alt allowed us a biographical glimpse into his creative life when he drew his studio in a suburb of Vienna, tracing the objects inside as well as the view onto the mountains of Wienerwald and the houses of the village of Dornbach. The result is a depiction of a place of work, but it is also an inadvertent rendition of what it means to love: that is, to look out at the world through the window of our souls with special attention, to open ourselves up to otherness, attempting to give true value to existence, to rescue so-called minor elements from inattention, striving to correct our normal disregard and coldness, and so honouring the true beauty and complexity of things before darkness falls.

Jakob Alt, View from the Artist’s Studio in Alservorstadt toward Dornbach,

Some of what holds people back from showing greater love is a sense that it would be dangerous and woolly-minded to do so. Too much sensitivity and sweetness, too much tolerance and sympathy appear to be the enemies of an appropriately grown-up and hard-headed existence. Such types are not saying that it wouldn’t be delightful if we could display compassion and tenderness towards one another, if we could be sensitive to the sufferings of strangers and quick to forgive and understand the failings of our colleagues and lovers; they just don’t think that this has much relevance in the real world.

In seeking to show why, they might refer to cases like that of the early-19th-century English poet John Keats, a gifted young man who wrote movingly about birds, the sky and autumn mists and stands as a representative of a universal attitude of gentleness and kindness, an exemplar of sensitivity and love.

Joseph Severn, John Keats, 1821

Keats’ life was far from an inspiration, however; indeed, it was a practical disaster. He trained as a doctor, but never got a job; he received a modest inheritance on his mother’s early death, but never managed to earn any money and was constantly pursued by creditors. His poems were not very well received; one particularly practical-minded reviewer described him as ‘a miserable creature’, longing for ‘a world of treacle’, in which everyone and everything is sweet. He died of tuberculosis aged twenty-five.

There seemed to have been a fatal misalignment in his life: Keats was broadly and warmly loving, but success eluded him. His ideas may have sounded elevated, but they didn’t help him to secure health or peace of mind. If we are to thrive, the interpretation goes, we need to harden ourselves, be realistic and accept the painful but important fact that excesses of sensitivity and kindness actively ruin our chances of flourishing.

Yet the temptation here is to assume that being loving and being realistic are contraries, that they are set like a fork in the road. We can be practical or we can be loving, but never both. The dispute is commonly translated in political terms; broadly, one side wants to be kind but will probably destroy the economy, the other side wants to support material prosperity, but the means will be brutal.

What has too often been missing in our ideas is the possibility that we might hold on to both love and rigour. Rather than seeing practicality and sympathy as alternatives, we could see them as different ingredients within a life. We’re not being asked to choose; good results must depend on a combination.

An exclusively loving person might be inclined to overlook how much love needs a clear eye for unwelcome facts. It’s not loving to tell someone that their business idea is bound to succeed when it is in fact naive or unworkable. It’s not loving to persuade someone that they are delightful just as they are when they may benefit from acquiring further skills or education. Love that loses touch with the reality of an imperfect world is no longer kind.

Yet the pure pragmatist, who trusts that cynicism lends them a perfect grip on how things work, is equally deluded. Kindness and generosity are essential lubricants; to get the best out of people involves magnanimity and decency; in order to negotiate successfully we need to feel the legitimacy of another person’s concerns. If we are to persuade others of anything, we have to enter into their minds with solicitude.

We’re lacking vivid descriptions and portrayals of people who have learned to be practical and loving. There have been too many people like Keats on the one hand and too many robber barons on the other. Sanity involves recognising that it is as naive and ultimately as dangerous to surrender indiscriminately to the claims of love as it is to ignore them altogether.

One of the reasons why we may end up acting more destructively and cruelly than we should is that it can take us a long time to fathom how someone like us could cause trouble for anyone. By ‘someone like us’, we mean someone who is as unpowerful, as put upon, as much subject to the whims of others, as obscure and forgotten as we generally feel ourselves to be. We know that certain people can be dangerous: those who run corporations, for example, or the heads of governments or investors in oil companies (we might get incensed when we think of what these mighty sorts get up to). It’s just that we’re nothing like this. We’re ordinary; we’re not in the midst of history; we’re not privileged; we’re the victims.

This sense of innocence tends to take hold when we are very young. At that time, it is obvious that we are not qualified to do much damage at all. We are weak before the world and it is always more likely that someone else will be the aggressor. Parents make unfair demands on us; teachers bully us; strangers might interfere with us.

From this, we may continue to trust in our own inability to aggrieve others. We therefore don’t try hard to reassure other people that we like them and that they are of value: why would they need to hear such messages from someone like us? We don’t rush to tell our hosts that their hospitality was satisfying; they surely know it anyway. We don’t feel we should pay someone a compliment; they obviously have more important friends than us to take care of their self-esteem. If we’re feeling oppressed and angry, we might sit down at our computer and lash out at a famous person online: it clearly can’t matter to them; they wouldn’t be listening to a character as negligible as we are. And thereby, bit by bit, on the back of touching feelings of innocence and powerlessness, we end up adding more than our fair share of poison to the collective bloodstream.

To be a loving person is to wrestle with an always profoundly improbable idea: that however modest our position in society might be, however much we may have been maltreated in the past, however mesmerised we are by the deplorable behaviour of powerful individuals, however shy and frail we are, we are constantly capable of causing other people significant hurt.

Loving people understand the extreme psychological susceptibility of everyone who crosses their path. They might have a neighbour, someone who is much more successful than they are and who holidays abroad several times a year, whom they still take care to share a few warm words with in the morning, knowing how a blank stare can hurt even someone who goes paragliding in the summer and has an elegant car. Even though one of their old friends is now a professional chef and seems confident about their work, the loving guest nevertheless bothers to write a witty and careful few lines of thanks after a dinner. There may be a big gap in age or status between them and their boss, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t say something encouraging when this figure has to go into hospital for a routine operation.

The loving know that you can be employed at the dry cleaner’s or work as an attendant at a cinema and still play a role in someone’s life through a small act of graciousness and solicitude. At the same time, they are aware that you could leave an unkind comment online – just a few words reminding a celebrity living thousands of miles away that they’re a piece of shit – and thereby help to strip away one of the last reasons why someone might bother to keep living.

The loving know how much everyone suffers from feelings of self-doubt, worthlessness, loneliness and pain beneath a veneer of imperviousness and strength. They may not have the precise details to hand, but they grasp enough about the general picture: how much each one of us is haunted by self-recriminations, how weighed down we are by opportunities we have missed, how isolated and overlooked we feel.

The loving intuit that there is a large gap between what people will tell us of their difficulties and what is almost certainly going on inside them. The conditions of society require a great deal of surface bravery; it is easy to miss the desperation. The loving have their senses open: they look out for signs of pain, they don’t wait to be overwhelmed by evidence. They know about pride and our reluctance to let people in on our defeats. They know how much we collude in keeping people at bay, even as we long for comfort. That’s why the loving write so many thank you notes, make so many apparently routine phone calls to say hello and leave openings in their conversations where others might venture a confession or a question. They aren’t being fake or putting on airs; they’re keeping the agony involved in being human at the forefront of their minds.

At a collective level, we describe the heightened awareness of our susceptibility to insult and harm as ‘manners’. History shows how long it has taken humanity to acquire manners in different areas. It now seems natural that we should ideally express gratitude to those who offer us gifts, shouldn’t eat with our fingers, should avoid burping loudly and mustn’t spit in the faces of those who irritate us – but the historical record tells another tale. What we might take to be ‘normal’ impulses to be modest, restrained and thoughtful are the hard-won fruits of a long and unsteady civilising process. We’ve only been using forks since Catherine de’ Medici promoted their use in the 1550s; we’ve only been writing thank you letters since the royal courts of Europe spread the habit in the 18th century. For the largest part of our presence on the earth, it has been customary to behead our enemies, to defecate in front of strangers and to use derogatory words towards the inhabitants of other lands.

Manners can seem irritatingly artificial and untrue to who we ‘really are’, but the loving know that it is no treat for anyone to be exposed to the full and unvarnished reality of another person. They are kind enough to shield everyone they encounter from an authenticity that is likely to include large reserves of irritability, unfairness, prejudice and self-pity. The loving don’t feel any need to take other people fully into the darkness of their hearts; they don’t need to be honest at any cost, they know that sincere kindness may mean leaving a huge amount unexpressed.

Though it may seem as if we now have all the manners we could possibly need, the loving also recognise how much further there is to go. We are only at the dawn of understanding how destructive an online comment might be; the power of the media to shame us is barely grasped, and generally discovered by individuals only when it is far too late. Our loud, self-promoting, angry, justificatory way of life exacts an unexplored and devastating toll on our psyches.

Small children do us a great favour by tending to burst into tears when they are in pain. Adults who look after small ones for the first time may be surprised by how delicate their feelings are: these adults only raised their voices slightly and now the three year old is in floods of tears; it was only a passing sarcastic joke, and now the little one is terrified or sulking under a blanket.

We shouldn’t wonder at this tenderness of heart; it belongs to all of us once we are properly attuned to our sensitivities. Our lives are constantly demeaned by missing small acts of grace: by the reassurance that doesn’t come, by the viciousness that isn’t held back, by the comfort that isn’t accorded. The loving never let this fragility out of their sight. It doesn’t matter that they might apparently be bit-part actors in the dramas of the world, they know that they wield a potentially decisive power to redeem or to damn, to depress or to cheer. They appreciate that they may be the last stop between a stranger and a decision to end it all. They don’t wait for obvious cries of help; they know that the emergency of being alive is general and ongoing.

Born in 1606, Rembrandt became a hugely successful painter when he was still only in his twenties. He earned a fortune and lived a wildly extravagant life. 

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Saskia, circa 1636

But by his early fifties, he was all but bankrupt: he had to sell his house and all the beautiful objects he had accumulated. In the world of respectable, prudent Dutch merchants, his economic ruin was regarded as deeply shameful – and, self-evidently, it was entirely his own fault.  

Around the time financial disaster struck, Rembrandt painted a self-portrait, burdened with an honest, deeply sorrowful awareness of his own idiocy and folly: it is evident in his eyes that he knows he doesn’t deserve anyone’s sympathy. 

  Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, aged 51, circa 1657 (National Gallery of Scotland) 

Fittingly, given what he had gone through, his culminating masterpiece, painted at the very end of his life relates to another, more famous character who has behaved in a clearly appalling way. 

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1669 

The picture illustrates a parable from the New Testament known as The Prodigal Son. The kneeling man has been prodigal – in the sense of profligate; he took his father’s money, ran away and spent it all on wine, women and song. The prodigal son stands in for Rembrandt himself – the waster who has brought ruin and disgrace upon himself. The son deserves to be hounded and humiliated. But this is not the reception he gets. In the painting, the elderly father-figure greets his son with great compassion and gentleness. Instead of giving his son the stern condemnation that he deserves, the father provides the love, warmth and forgiveness the son needs

The picture conveys Rembrandt’s moving and very intimate realisation about the true nature of love: it reaches out to the selfish idiot, to the wastrel, to the passion-driven fool. Love properly understood is destined also for the undeserving.

Perhaps Rembrandt’s most moving work is a modest looking print entitled Christ Preaching. Significantly, it isn’t set in Galilee or Jerusalem in the 1st century AD. Instead the message of kindness is being preached in a back street of a Dutch town, in other words, to Rembrandt’s contemporaries. 

Rembrandt, Christ Preaching, circa 1657

The message can be boiled down to three words: ‘I love you’ and it’s being beamed out to precisely the kinds of people who – in Rembrandt’s day – were viewed (with some justification) as particularly odious: they are, we can guess, thieves, layabouts, drunks, pimps and  people who lent money at terrifying rates of interest; mean employers and con-artists. If Rembrandt were creating this work today, we might see – ranged around the alleyway – the representative unloveable figures of our times: a politician who incites conflict, the owner of a newspaper that puts profit above truth; someone who is proud of their vulgarity; a snobbish socialite, an arms trader, a feral youth, a sexual deviant or the kind of person who seems to take satisfaction in distressing others. It is to them that the message of love is being directed. 

Rembrandt’s key insight is that everyone needs love – whether they deserve it or not. If we wait to be kind only to those who deserve kindness, we will be waiting for a very long time; in fact, we’ll have turned into monsters.

One of the cruellest aspects of mental illness is that it strips us of any ability to believe that other people might be suffering in the way we are. We aren’t being wilfully egocentric or arrogant; we are condemned by our illness to a feeling that we are uniquely pitiful, uniquely unacceptable, uniquely awful. The central legacy of mental illness, and a major contributor to our suicidal impulses, is a feeling of exceptionalism. Our mental troubles coat us in appalling degrees of shame. 

Ill, we start to run away from other people. Gatherings become impossible – for we grow preemptively terrified of the presumed invulnerability and judgmentalness of those we might meet. We can’t possibly make small talk or concentrate on what someone else is saying when our heads are filled with catastrophic scenarios and an intrusive voice is telling us that we should die. There seems no compact or acceptable way to share with old friends what we have been going through: they knew us as chatty and optimistic. What would they make of the tortured characters we have become? We start to assume that no one on earth could possibly know – let alone accept – what it is like to be us. 

This is especially tragic because the central cure for mental illness is company. Our disease denies us access to precisely what we most need in order to get better. 

In 1891, the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler exhibited The Disappointed Souls. Five figures are pictured in varied states of dejection. We don’t know quite what has gone wrong in their lives, but Hodler’s talent invites us to imagine possibilities: a marriage here, a social disgrace there, an unbudgeable depression, a feeling of overwhelming anxiety… However awful the individual stories might be, the true horror of the painting emerges from elsewhere, from the way each crisis is unfolding in complete isolation from its neighbours. The disconsolate figures are only millimetres away from one another, but they might as well be on alternative planets. It should be so easy to reach out, to share the burden, to lend a comforting hand, to swap stories – and it would be so life-giving. But no fellowship seems possible in this depiction of hell. Sadness has wrapped each sufferer up in a pitiless sense of their own singularity.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Disappointed Souls, 1891 

A further horror is that Hodler wasn’t painting any one scene, he intended his work as an allegory of modern society as a whole, with its absence of community, its lonely cities and its alienating technologies. But in this very depiction lies the possibility of redemption. We will start to heal when we realise that we are in fact always extremely close to someone who is as wretched as we are. We should hence always be able to reach out to a similarly broken neighbour and lament in unison. We should learn to come together for a very particular kind of social occasion – a crying party – whose whole focus would be an exchange of notes on the misery and lacerations of existence.

In an ideal gathering of the unwell, in a comfortable safe-seeming room, we would take it in turns to reveal to one another the torments in our minds. Each of us would detail the latest challenges. We’d hear of how others were going through sleepless nights, were unable to eat, were too terrified to go outside, were hearing voices and had to fight against constant impulses to kill themselves. The material would be dark no doubt, but to hear it would be like a balm for our stricken lonely souls.

Ideally, we would keep meeting the same people, week after week – so that our lives would grow entwined with theirs and we could exchange mutual support as we travelled through the valley of sickness. We would know who was in particular difficulty, who needed tenderness and who might benefit from an ordinary-sounding chat about the garden or the weather.

It isn’t possible that we are as alone we currently feel. Biology doesn’t produce complete one-offs. There are fellow creatures among the seven billion of our species. They are there – but we have lost all confidence in our right to find them. We feel isolated not because we are so but because we are unwell. We should dare to believe that a fellow disappointed soul is right now sitting next to us on the bench, waiting for us to make a sign.

One of the major reasons why our lives are busier than they might be is that we come under immense pressures to ‘go out’, usually in the evening, typically to one of the most peculiar and paradoxical of all human social inventions: parties.

It is because these parties are so ubiquitous and benefit from such widespread approval that we’re liable to miss how confusing and, along the way, unhelpful they can be to our always sensitive inner selves. 

What draws us to leave home isn’t merely a sense of duty, it is the desire to connect deeply with other humans, to attenuate a perhaps painful sense of isolation and to find an echo of our fears and longings in the eyes of others.

But what typically happens when we reach the party should lead us to interrogate, at a minimum, the pressures we are under to leave home. It is usually evident that our hosts have been to a lot of trouble: their place may look charming, glasses may be sparkling on a side table, some plates of interesting canapes might be circulating and the room will perhaps be crowded with a lot of well-turned out individuals enjoying energetic conversations.

But if we were to conduct an anthropological investigation into what was actually being said, we might discover that the guests were all acting in accordance with a well-established and rigid social code that might lead us to doubt why we had ever freely opted to stand in the center of a room holding a glass and wondering who to talk to next. At least 8 rules come to mind:

1. Emphasise your successes, though boast only covertly.

2. Never allude to troubles, doubts or worries; apparently no-one comes to a party to hear what is going on in another’s heart.

3. As much as possible, agree with others. If someone is talking about their new puppy, say ‘how lovely’ – especially if you dislike dogs. If someone mentions that they’ve been on a skiing holiday at the foot of a mountain you’ve never heard of, remark ‘oh that’s amazing.’ 

4. Keep it light: laugh even if you don’t especially find anything funny; look for the amusing side of every topic.

5. Don’t reveal any earnest aspiration to connect with a fellow broken ailing human. 

6. Mingle: it’s rude to talk at length with anyone; speak to as many as possible, even if only for a minute.

7. Hug people you would normally cross the road to avoid.

8. If anyone fails to stick to the rules and says or does something ‘wrong’ (like being sincere), slip off rapidly to talk to someone else who knows how to behave ‘properly’. 

It’s tantalising. All of us have rich and complex histories. All of us have dazzling minds that can record the most subtle impressions and are filled with tender and poignant scenes accumulated over decades. We all had complicated childhoods, are ambivalent about our careers, troubled by despair and anxiety, worried about our relationships, puzzled by sex – and heading towards decay and death far sooner than we can bear. And yet still we continue to mention the traffic and ask about each other’s recent holidays. 

How many sincere sides we might long to discover in our new companions if only we could: what happened in their childhoods, how did they find their way through adolescence, what do they make of their parents, what do they dislike about themselves, what makes them fall into bed sobbing, have they ever thought of suicide? But the social codes governing parties ensure that we will never come close to any such enquiries. We may have been asked along to the evening; our deeper selves have not been invited. 

The moral is clear. If we seek others, we should stay at home, if we wish to alleviate loneliness, we should turn down invitations, if we want company, we would be better off communing with dead writers and poets rather than hunting for solace at large gatherings.

We should cease to be ashamed of our buried longings to remain by ourselves. It is very normal, and highly understandable, for properly social people – that is, people who really wish their souls to connect with those of others – to feel anxious about parties – and to prefer to see people very seldom and then only in the smallest and most intimate of contexts. If we properly crave the love and understanding of people, it will be too much to bear the humiliations and betrayals involved in the average get-together. We should restrict our social lives to the exceptional evening out with a true friend who can weep with us, sympathise us with and exchange authentic and heartfelt notes with us on the fleeting ecstasies and long-running sorrows of being human. That will be a ‘party’ worth breaking our isolation for.