Loneliness. It’s the modern malaise. It can feel like a little tug of insecurity or a horrible gut-wrenching emptiness. No man is an island, as the saying goes. Yet so often I feel like I am separated from others by a vast ocean, made up of differences, excuses, busy lives and missed opportunities. It is not the same as simply being alone, for it is possible to be in one’s own company and feel perfectly content. It is also possible to be in a crowded room and still feel isolated. What then, is loneliness?
Often characterised by a lack of belonging, to me it is the feeling of being trapped in an extreme state of introspective isolation, often dominated by negative self-talk and rumination. The private inner world inside my head seems to expand to gross proportions, while my mental capacity to look outwards beyond this internal space shrinks back dramatically. The result is that my mind feels like a baron and destitute echo-chamber full of vagrant hateful thoughts, boxing me up in a tumultuous state of helpless insignificance.
I’ll admit that many a time I have laid on the floor of my bedroom, crying in desperation and self-pity, having lost the strength to fight the crushing weight of loneliness bearing down on me. Rather than offer hope, the knowledge of what is out there only magnifies this sense of detachment and remoteness; of being always on the periphery. In this hinterland I feel reduced to a ‘nobody’, surrounded by a world of people and interaction I am not a part of. I look out my bedroom window and see people and friends- talking, mingling, discussing, laughing, reflecting and reminiscing- while I am alone, a silent spectator of the social world.
If I were to hazard a guess, I think I must spend about 90-95% of my life on my own- never speaking and in silence. Although I have now learnt methods to cope and be more resilient, during periods of intense isolation I sometimes still sense the foundations of my stable reality start to shake as a tidal-wave of sadness threatens to rise up. This is when I become most vulnerable to the dark thoughts and emotions that haunted me when I was seriously ill with depression. At the highest peak of loneliness purpose and meaning can give way to entropy. It’s like gazing down into an empty abyss and stepping one foot over the cliff edge. We all need someone to tap us on the shoulder and pull us back. Too much detachment can be dangerous. No wonder solitary confinement is considered one of the worst forms of punishment.
Without enough shared and meaningful connection with other people it is easy to become engulfed in an all too painfully acute sense of self-awareness. If you feel lonely it is hard to feel good about yourself, for it is erosive, stealing away one’s sense of attachment to life, and even our own humanity. You can’t help but wonder, why am I so lonely? And do I matter? Life needs meaning and hope. Coming into contact with other people reminds us that we too are people. It reaffirms our place in the world, diminishes our worries and burdens, motivates and inspires us, shows us what it possible (with different perspectives, ideas, lives and achievements) and reminds us that life is not as futile as loneliness makes it appear to be.
This is why it is so important that we make connection a priority in our lives. The number of times I have considered myself to have been saved by a random interaction with a kind stranger or a message from a friend is astonishing. While social media offers new ways to stay connected, it also gives us authorship to create self-narratives of perfection. Modern life allows us to establish social networks that are diverse and vast, but also to withdraw from forming the types of real physical and emotional bonds of our grandparents’ generation. In the fight against loneliness we need to be careful that we don’t only ever relate to people superficially and take the time to engage in genuine expressions of feelings and friendship.
I do not wish to imply that loneliness is always pernicious and bad. When I have been out wandering knee-deep in the trenches of solitude I have experienced the true beauty in things that I cannot take for granted; moments of intimate self-reflection, when I am free and unobserved. I remember once coming face-to-face with a roe deer. We stood still with our eyes locked together, and for that moment we were both simply two peaceful creatures of nature. It’s good to have experiences like this that are entirely your own- treasured gifts that no one else will ever touch.
It is also important to confront loneliness and not run away from ourselves. If we are afraid of being alone, we are scared of connecting with ourselves, perhaps in fear of what we might find. After all, worry and self-doubt are stalwart companions of loneliness. I have endured many mental battles during time spent on my own- some of which I have won, and some I have lost. I have both amazed and disappointed myself. I have discovered my capabilities and limits. In my loneliness I have developed as a person.
Yet despite these gains I still need to feel validated as a human being, and I believe that the richest source comes from our bonds, interconnections and relationships with others- because these help optimism, hope and compassion to flourish. This is therefore my plea to ask you to take care of the people in your life; not only the ones who will be around for years to come, but also those whom you may only ever meet with once, as they briefly pass cross your path before continuing on their own journey. We can never know the difference our kindness may make to the life of another individual.
Life is short. So be the most human you can be:
Connect, connect, connect.