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Self-Knowledge • Melancholy

How Lonely Are You? A Test

It’s highly understandable if we don’t generally want to see ourselves as lonely – and would never want to admit to such a possibility in public. In our world, to be deemed lonely is to be at sharp risk of humiliation and suspicion. Imagine if, for instance, at a job interview, one was asked to describe oneself and replied candidly: ‘I feel isolated and misunderstood a lot of the time, even when I’m around people whom I call friends.’ The position would be liable swiftly to go to someone else. 

But we can approach the question of our loneliness from another angle. What if being lonely were actually a legitimate marker of being an interesting, emotionally sincere and thoughtful person? What if, in a world of superficial alliances, lonely was just what a more serious person tended naturally and legitimately to be? What if being lonely hinted at an ability to avoid superficiality and to build deep and intelligent bonds with select people? An admission of loneliness could then shift from being a troubling sign of social inadequacy to evidence of a noble condition and a promising future. We might – in a curious way – end up proud of our own loneliness.

Photo of a woman walking in the midst of a snowstorm.
Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

With this in mind, we might take an unusual test that seeks to probe at the more dignified and generous reasons one might have for being lonely. Loneliness (rightly investigated) should provide a sketch of our potential for friendship: the path to true friendships should pass through an honest reckoning with the deeper, more secret ways we might presently and privately be feeling quite alone.  

1. What do most of your so-called friends not understand about you? 

You might have many friends, but how well-aligned are they once you take off a self-protective and sentimental lens? Are there things about you that you try – tentatively and repeatedly – to hint at, but which find no encouragement? Is the laughter sometimes hollow? Is there more enthusiasm than any real grounds for it? Are there too many things about you that you wouldn’t dream of mentioning? Be as specific as possible, no matter how odd or seldom-discussed the answers might seem. The challenging element here is to hold onto the longing to be understood despite a latent sadness at not being so; we can get so used to not being met in certain areas that we suppress even the idea of how nice it would be if someone could see us as we really are. 

2. Who might you turn to if you were disgraced as a result of an error on your part? 

If a large slice of the world were to turn against you, would there be anyone who would continue to see you as you, and not just as the weirdo or loser that society made you out to be? And to turn the screws further: how would this person engage with the fact that – perhaps – a degree of blame really did attach to you? Who might see you as both guilty and still worthy of their great affection and kindness? Is there anyone for whom your merits could withstand the public exposure of your defects? And is there anyone you would treat with comparable compassionate grace? 

3. Who would you be able to tell if there was a big problem in your relationship?

Society has plenty of time for the romantic troubles of those who are single or dating casually; but strikingly little for the difficulties of those who are married or cohabiting. Is there someone who you can be certain would you hear your distress in a spirit of deeply sympathetic patience? What if you had had an affair or you suspected your partner was straying? What if love had cooled despite there being three small children in the house? Who would stay with you through the (perhaps) hours of anger, despair or remorse? With whom might you feel free enough not merely to blame your partner but also to express your own share of guilt and dismay at the pain in your couple?  

4. With whom (if anyone) can you discuss your true insecurities or complexities around sex? 

Although society – at least in certain parts of the world – likes to present itself as immensely open, it’s a radically different matter when it comes to our erotic lives. Often, one may not fit a readily available template of social sympathy: it’s tricky to be an elegantly attired Dean of the Business Faculty who wants to …; a tank commander who …; a mother of three delightful children with a longing to ….Given how judgemental people are, we might not even trust so-called close friends with the details of our true desires. And yet, at some level, we naturally wish we could be seen with tenderness around our more convoluted sensual aspects. We may even have forgotten to call this loneliness. 

5. With whom can you explore your day-dreams?

Our day-dreams about what our future could be are an important part of who we are – but they are characteristically detached from practical possibility and can easily sound absurd. To go into detail about a day-dream – it might be about what business we would like to start or where we would want to live or how our retirement might go or what novel we’d want to write – can require a great degree of indulgence from another person: they have to be willing to enter our imaginative space, to allow that these thoughts are important to us, however whimsical or silly they may initially  appear and that something serious might one day come from a very rough and vulnerable early draft. Is there even one person with whom – and with mutual pleasure – you might dare to attempt a disclosure? 

6. Who likes the idiot in you? 

Mostly we go to great lengths to keep our stupidities and inadequacies out of sight, on the understanding that (even though we all have them) they would dismay or irritate others. But a true friend would be moved to like us more on account of what’s unimpressive and not so clever about us: the things we have forgotten to do, the daft comments we have made, the inept gestures we are guilty of. Our idiocies – for our true friends – would not be fully separable from our merits; these friends would see, and be sweet to, our bursts of exuberant fun, slightly comical preoccupations and moments of gross clumsiness. Who, if anyone, can like it when we are not wholly grown up?

7. Who teases you accurately?

Is there anyone who gently makes fun of you – not to hurt you but to deliver, with a loving and witty touch, a reproach that is useful to your own development? Teasing is the highest outcome of the inevitable fact that another who knows us well will and should spot many failings in us and, when they love us properly, should also want to point these out to us with kindness and wit. They should – with love – sublimate their irritation into gentle jokes. Getting someone to laugh at themselves is the most useful – as well as most thoughtful – form that education and feedback can ever take. It’s a sign of being truly cared for.

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