Tag Archives: loneliness

Solitude, aloneness and landscape

I don’t need to be on my own to be lonely. Like many people, some of my loneliest experiences have been in the company of people where I have not felt I belonged.  I’m good at not belonging, and there aren’t that many people in whose company I find solace.

Solitude, on the other hand, has been something I’ve actively sought for much of my life. The peace to sit with my own thoughts, the freedom to be as I am with no reference to anyone else. Not being around people does not always cause me to feel lonely.

One of the things that lockdown clarified for me, is that I experience loneliness most intensely in relation to landscape. I don’t find wild, human-free landscapes lonely though. The kinds of wild landscapes other people might call bleak, barren or lonely, have never struck me that way. Expanses of land and sky give me a feeling of belonging, of being held and acceptable.

I am nothing to a hill. I find that immensely comforting. Skies do not judge. Trees do not want small talk. The landscape has little or no interest in me, but is also accepting of me. The loneliness of not being easy in human spaces is eased for me by being out under the sky. Finding the official guidelines when lockdown began were to only go outside for an hour each day was hell, and plunged me deep into depression. In the end I ignored what I was supposed to do, but walked at night and in the early dawn light so as to pose no risk to anyone else.

The loneliness that comes from being landscape starved is worse than anything I have ever felt about a shortage of people.

There are people I need. People I missed dreadfully when I couldn’t spend time with them in person. I know who they are now, and they know who they are, and some of those relationships have evolved of necessity. People I know it is safe to be emotionally honest with. People whose absence causes me the same kind of distress as not being out under the sky enough. There aren’t many of them.

I find the loneliness of being with people where I don’t belong is far harder to deal with in the short term than not having much contact with people outside my household. Over the long term, the absence of people I care about has been painful, but the absence of people generally has been fine, and in many ways a blessing.


Unspeakable loneliness

How can you speak of it when it implies criticism of everyone you love? How can you say ‘I am lonely’ if you have a partner, or friends, or family, or all of those? But you can have people in your life and be lonely, and I think it needs talking about.

In any given 24 hour period, Tom and I spend something close to 24 hours together, waking and sleeping. We work at the same table. But, we work alone, usually in silence, each engaged with whatever we’re doing. Working in the same space isn’t time spent together, and it took us a while to learn that.

We both suffer from depression and anxiety. This means there are times when both of us need someone with the energy and ideas to break through our numbness and take us somewhere else. When we’re both ill, we can’t actually do that for each other. It is also a lot to ask that it falls only to your partner to wade in and rescue you when you have been kidnapped by the monsters in your head.

Depression and anxiety both, in their own ways, make it hard to ask for help. If you are feeling gloomy and worthless, how can you ask someone you like to spend time with that? How can you show up socially without a mask firmly in place to spare others? And if you socialise while masked, you will feel incredibly lonely. If anxiety is gnawing at you, then the fear of how anyone will respond to you making it visible is also going to be part of the mix.

Mental illness means you can be in a room full of people and totally unable to connect to them. It can mean you won’t let anyone see you as you are, and you experience the profound loneliness of being related to as you are not. It can mean being unable to go out at all, unable to speak, unable to reach out. So you may have hordes of lovely friends and just not know how to approach them when depression has its teeth around your throat. You probably don’t want to put them through seeing you like this. Maybe you don’t want to sabotage your own dignity by letting people see you when you are broken.

There are many potential causes of loneliness – and for many people isolation is central. But, a person can appear not to be isolated, and still be feeling really cut off. It may be very difficult to hear about loneliness from someone you think should feel close to you, but if anyone does talk to you about it, this is a sign of tremendous trust. Try not to be cross with them over how you might feel, because if they’ve come to you it’s likely because they think you are one of the few people who might not hate them for feeling as they do.


Needing People

Some people like to feel needed, but there are plenty of folk for whom saying ‘I need you’ is likely to induce some kind of panic. What they hear (I suspect) is more like ‘I need you to commit to doing certain things for me.’ I need you to bolster me up in certain ways. I need you to look after me, take responsibility for me, I will make work for you and suck up your time and energy.

We all need people. At a practical level, most of us need people to do the many things we cannot do for ourselves. We may never meet the people who grow and prepare our food, make our clothes, provide our electricity and maintain our roads but we need them nonetheless.

Humans are social creatures. We’ve evolved to work co-operatively and to live in groups. Many of us, if left alone, become lonely and miserable. Here’s an article about how loneliness kills. Meaningful human interactions are part of what keeps us sane and coping.

We all need people.

What if that needing isn’t about specific actions? What if it’s not about asking people to take roles and responsibilities within our lives? What if I can say ‘I need you’ and you will hear that as my need to have you, as you are, in my life. Not doing anything extra, just doing what you do and being who you are.

What if being who you are and doing what you do is wholly sufficient already? What if you didn’t have to go some difficult extra mile to be the sort of person who is needed? Then being needed wouldn’t be a matter of utility, just a recognition of who we are.


Loneliness and Revelation

I took Loneliness and Revelation – a modestly sized philosophical text by Brendan Myers – with me to a recent weekend Steampunk event. It turned out to be very apt reading. The main theme of the book is loneliness, which Brendan considers to be intrinsic to the human condition. Inside our own heads, each of us is separate and alone. There are some religious traditions that try and overcome this by making us one with everything, but as this book so usefully points out, if everything is one, you have a singular thing that still has every reason and opportunity to experience loneliness. That in many myths, the original creator god creates to deal with being alone, is well worth considering.

This is not, as a consequence, a book about how to never suffer loneliness again. It explores the things we can do to tackle our insularity – both the things that work, and the things that are popular, but don’t. There’s consideration of the ethical side of how we assert ourselves in the world, questions about how to live well and be happy alongside this issue of intrinsic loneliness. There’s a lot of reflection on the relationship between creativity and loneliness as well. Given the size of the book, it is broad and deep in ways that I really liked.

A big public gathering of some 4000 people, was in many ways the perfect setting for reading this. Steampunk is a very creative community, in which hours of work and great care and attention is lavished upon kits and creativity. People do this very specifically to be seen, to be noticed by others. The kit in turn gives permission to start conversations; it’s not just acceptable, but desirable to approach other Steampunks and compliment them on attire, artefacts and the like. Having spent some days in a space that encourages social contact between strangers really brought home to me how generally impossible it would be to walk up to a stranger in the street and start a conversation with them. In most spaces, loneliness is supported, not connection.

Expressing who we are in the world, by word and deed, is a big part of what Loneliness and Revelation explores. The power of manifesting something of who we are and having that seen, known and understood is something Brendan offers as key to overcoming loneliness. And yet modern human interactions push us in the exact opposite direction. Work uniforms, scripts for dealing with ‘clients’, with brands offered to us as self expression, and photo-shopped celebrity mistaken for being seen and recognised. It made me wonder how much online trolling comes from the basic need to be seen and heard, and a loss of any sense that this might have an ethical dimension to it.

That’s a very superficial bit of reflection on a very deep book. It’s changed me and influenced my thinking in ways I have not yet fully digested. There is much here about how to live and how to choose life, and I think it’s a book many people would benefit from reading. If you are the sort of person who likes to reflect and if you lead with the head, and favour a reasoned approach, this is a book that will help you think about how you are in the world, and how you want to be. It’s not always an easy or comfortable read, but if you are the sort of person who doesn’t need it all to be optimistic and upbeat, (and if you’re reading my blog, I rate the chances) you might well want to read this.


Nature, Mindfulness and Emotion

Here’s a thing I keep banging my head against. I want to be mindful in all things, conscious of my actions and words and in control of them. I consider this essential for living in ethical and honourable ways. What this means in practice is that I spend most of my time trying very hard to maintain suitable levels of self control.

Now, here’s the rub. Most of my emotions are so intense, so all consuming, that the idea of them passing through gently is hard to imagine. I live in fairly intense emotional spectrums, and repressing any emotion so that it does not result in a physical expression is unspeakably hard. Experience to date suggests that the physical expression of my emotions does cause distress to others, and I am not comfortable with causing that distress, so mostly I try not to. Frequently I fail.

The quandary: Do my emotions, in their raw, chaotic and powerful state, constitute my nature, or are they something that I need to learn to tame and control? If they are my nature, are they allowable, is there some place for them, somewhere in the world? If I tame them, I might be able to become the more placid, docile, biddable person I feel certain the people around me would find it more comfortable to deal with. Would I be a better person if I could tame the extremities of my feelings?

Or is there anything in here that might have an intrinsic value, somewhere, somehow? (I’m unconvinced, but I have to ask for the sake of balance.)

I’ve spent most of my adult life trying for control, trying to be what those around me want me to be – of which one of the key elements has always been expressing a gentle, co-operative persona, which is just a construct, is not in any way ‘real’ in terms of how I understand myself. And there are days when holding that together and keeping it smiling is so hard that I just want to curl up and weep.

I will confess that I have spent my whole life yearning for some kind of space where I could feel safe about letting some of the other stuff out. There have been times, sharing music, when I’ve been able to express and feel fully alive, in the moment, whole… but music is abstract, and it’s easy for people not to have to look too hard at what’s really going on there, which makes it inherently safer. There are times when the sheer loneliness inherent in feeling unable to share my emotional self, is crippling. I say it, in case there is someone out there who feels this too, and who can find some catharsis, or companionship in these words.

I’m not sure it is mindfulness. It’s a good cover. It may in fact be fear. I know perfectly well that what lives on the inside is a fairytale monster full of teeth and excess. If it gets out, if anyone sees it, I will become an exile. Hiding is survival. Mindfulness keeps the fear of what I am under control.

I know I am blessed with some brilliant, insightful and forthright commentators on this blog. This is without a doubt the most personal thing I have ever put in a public place. It will be interesting to see what anyone does with this.