I caught an ABC program on Radio National the other day as I was preparing my lunch–a salad, which is pretty much what I have for lunch every afternoon with the exception of Christmas Day dinner and the odd time there’s nothing in the garden or the fridge. It was a program about loneliness. My ears pricked up because I’m interested in loneliness. I’ve experienced my share of it and I often see it directing the behaviour of others in ways they don’t seem to be aware of at the time. The woman being interviewed, her name was Emily White, had spent years researching and writing a book on loneliness. Though she has read widely on the subject and has interviewed numerous individuals about their loneliness, the book itself, as she described it, is essentially about her own experience of what it was like to feel lonely for an extended period of her life.
What struck me most about the program (the November 12th broadcast of “All in the Mind” for those who want to follow it up) even more than the content, which was interesting in itself, was that loneliness was being talked about as a topic of concern and importance and that someone had actually devoted a sizeable chunk of her life seriously studying her own and the loneliness of others. From memory, I had never heard such a thing before. My mind took flight and imagined what it would be like to be in the middle of a social gathering when suddenly someone naively, and to the embarrassment of others including myself, blurted out the fact that there was an elephant in the room by saying, “Hey, yuh know what? I’m desperately lonely right now”. Would I ever say such a thing at a party? Never, I told myself, certainly not if I was sober.
I then felt obliged to ask myself, why not? Well, I thought, first of of all I would feel ashamed. Shame has a dampening effect on my internal conversations. This occasion was no exception. But the next day, the topic returned, and, since I was seated at my computer at the time, I thought I might try to approach the issue with a bit more courage and detachment.
For me, there’s something definitely not cool about being lonely. It means other people don’t find me interesting, which in turn means I’m not interesting, which in another turn, results in my having no interest in myself. It means I’ve decided I’m a hopeless, boring loser; and having arrived at that conclusion, for which, at the time, the evidence seems incontrovertible, there is no need or desire to look into the matter any further. After all, it’s not pleasant to realise I’m a dud of a personality, and therefore the best thing I can do, I reason, is to try not to think about it and to convince myself that I’m okay and that loneliness is something other people, very different from myself, have to deal with. However, maintaining this pretence over a long period of time is stressful, unsatisfying and exhausting. The simple truth of the matter is, at the present moment of this imagined scenario, I’m lonely.
And what’s it like to be lonely? How would I describe it? Do I feel it in my body? Where? What colour is my loneliness? Does it move? How does it move? Fast, slow, gracefully, awkwardly? Does it remind me of some experience in the past? What’s the feeling attached to that experience? Does loneliness have a voice? What’s the voice like? How old does the voice sound? Does that voice want to say anything? What? Maybe it prefers silence. Would that voice care to share what it is about silence that makes it preferable?
And so, an inquiry begins, and if I show genuine interest in this lonely aspect of myself, which inhabits my body and which it shares with other aspects of my personality, I find a conversation is soon happening and the Lonely One is telling me stuff about himself, to which I am listening intently and no longer wishing he would disappear, and he is no longer feeling as lonely as he was.
After having waited so long, someone is actually interested in him.
Loneliness is the strongest and clearest invitation I ever receive to get to know myself.