The Roots of Loneliness
It remains unhelpfully hard to be able to admit that one is lonely. Unless one has recently been widowed or just moved to a new city, there are no respectable-sounding explanations for why someone would find themselves without a sufficient number of friends. The supposition quickly forms that a person’s loneliness must be explained by something diseased and troubling within their character. If they are lonely, it is because there are things in their nature that merit for them to be left alone.
Yet in reality, what makes someone feel lonely isn’t usually that they have no one they can be with, but that they don’t know a sufficient number of people who could understand the more sincere and quirk-filled parts of themselves. A warm body with whom to have a meal isn’t hard to find; there is always someone with whom one might discuss meteorological matters. But true loneliness doesn’t end the moment one is chatting with someone, it ends when a companion is able to follow us closely and honestly in the revelation of the intimate ailments and vulnerabilities of being human.
We stop feeling lonely when, at last, someone is there to acknowledge with frankness how perplexing sex remains, how frightening death is, how much envy one feels, how many supposedly small things spark anxiety, how much one sometimes hates oneself, how weepy one can be, how much regret one has, how self-conscious one feels, how complex one’s relationship to one’s parents is, how much misery one harbours, how much unexplored potential one has, how odd one is about different parts of one’s body and how emotionally immature one remains. It’s the capacity to be honest about these potentially embarrassing and little-spoken of sides of human nature that connects us to others and finally brings our isolation to an end.
It’s often said that we have built a lonely modern world. If this is so, it has nothing to do with our busy working schedules or gargantuan cities. It has to do with the fiction we tell ourselves about what we’re like. We trade in brutally simplified caricatures, which leave out so much of our real natures – so much of the pain, confusion, wildness and extremity. We’re lonely because we can’t easily admit to other people what we know is true in ourselves – and see no evidence for our peculiarities in public discourse. We tell stories about what we’ve been up to lately or how we feel at the moment that capture almost nothing of the truth of who we are, not because we are liars, but because we are ashamed of the gap between what we sense in ourselves and what is generally spoken of. We’re encouraged to present a cheerful, one-dimensional facade in which everything awkward but essential has been planed off. Without a hold on our true selves and energy to divulge our core, we have no chance of ever genuinely ‘meeting’ anyone else – however many so-called friends we might lay claim to.
A first step towards ending loneliness would be to encourage ourselves to investigate our own characters with greater depth – and then reassure us that our discoveries will have analogies with those of other people, even if they are as yet keeping quiet about what these might be. We should be prompted to open the more secret doors of our minds and step into the sad, angry, envious or self-hating rooms – turn on the lights and examine the contents without prudishness or denial, shame or guilt. When we are then next with someone else, we should risk shedding the usual superficial perfectionist expectations and comparing our mutual eccentricity and fear.
The heightened loneliness of some melancholy souls can be explained because they are unusually closely in touch with the less public, more candid parts of themselves. They are dissatisfied with their relationships with people around them because they have made friends with so many of the lesser known rooms in their own minds. They haven’t shied away from uncomfortable and surprising ideas and feelings – and hunger to discuss these in unsuperficial dialogue with equally forthright others.
We are lonely because we have collectively been slow to accept that are delightfully.strange and unhinged people who lose little by confessing as much to those we meet. We should allow ourselves to reveal more of who we really are to those with the imagination and sense of adventure to listen, and to bring their own weirdness to the table in turn. Friendship begins when our unwarranted shame can finally be dismissed.