All these lonely people: Where do they come from?
Last week, New York Post published a shocking report that only 30 strangers, no relatives, attended a woman’s funeral. This incident obviously reminds us of the Beatles’ classic number ‘Eleanor Rigby’, talking about a woman who lived and died alone. It is hard to tell whether loneliness was a big issue when the song was conceived and composed. Perhaps, it was as much as it is now! In fact, study shows loneliness has been an important issue since the beginning of the world, from the ancient story of the Bible, where ‘lonely’ Adam needed a companion, to today’s network-crazy nervous generation, where attention-seeking soliloquies are outcries of lonely hearts.
Writers and artists since classical antiquity have presented loneliness in individuals or communities or even places. From Orpheus’ tragic love story to Confessional poetry, be it ethnic minorities or members of royal families the theme of isolation has probably created the most essential lifeblood in sparkling art pieces. War-torn civilizations as well as romantic chateaus built across the common shores echoed with overflowing emotions from human souls. Interestingly, after almost 50 years of the summer of love, from the relief-searching metaphors through psychedelic expressions to the blockbuster animation sagas, the world still is a lonely place for many. Have we ever questioned, where do all these lonely people come from? Numerous artists and creative thinkers through the ages claimed to have lived lonely lives further confirms that the idea of loneliness is not a recent discovery.
Loneliness is perceived to be a complex emotional response to isolation, be it social or nonsocial. It is usually described as an awareness of being without ‘meaningful’ relationships, whether one enjoys it or feels sad about it. Sometimes it is synonymous to being alone. Loneliness can be partly social, political as well as economic; it may even derive from psychological tensions one creates out of an illusion to living differently, if not happily. Various researches show that everybody feels lonely at some point of their life, being quite successful or being a complete failure, the subjectivity of the reaction encompasses all. However, what is unique about loneliness is that it has a bittersweet taste; it’s a problem as well as a solution. Some people feel that life would be full of joy without it, while others think loneliness is the fundamental essence of human condition.
John Steinbeck in East of Eden said, ‘All great and precious things are lonely.’ His British contemporary, Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World said, ‘If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely’, and a little reflection of that can be found in Kirk Douglas’ classic movie Lonely are the Brave and of course in many other movies with similar storyline. Regardless of the contexts, the testimonials above have a major point for us to consider.
Sometimes loneliness provides an idyllic seclusion, it is a remedy to morbid restlessness one encounters in a crowd. Loneliness is a thought-fox for the visionary romantics, Jackson Pollock’s inspiration, Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s 5th Sinfonie, Van Gogh’s ragged men in ragged clothes, Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia; loneliness is like Antrim coastline found in isolation when companionship hurts, tragedy haunts and one is at the world’s end. While at other times, loneliness is paranoia, a phone call from a stranger, Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Bunuel’s Obscure Object of Desire, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight or Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Angelopoulos’ Eternity and a Day, or a divine tragedy where Tarkovsky protagonists stare anxiously and seem unable to think and communicate through words. Whether one glides in a swan lake or feels subdued in sublimity, loneliness is probably the easiest route to being mature and wise, being immortal before dying.
Rachel Luria in her celebrated essay ‘A State of Feeling’ claimed, ‘Living alone is a luxury, a privilege.’ A bold statement like this does not swirl in the brain without a remote sense of irony, a kind of bitterness, a feeling of emptiness that looms large against the abstractness and grandeur which ‘living alone’ inspires in a living being. Being lonely is like losing paradise, being ship-wrecked in midstream, it’s like Hamlet’s castle overlooking Kafka’s trial or Beckett’s delusion, Frankenstein’s master reflecting on the remains of the day, it’s being afraid of Woolf or Plath, or being Eyre or Emily in an impressionistic masterpiece, it’s like being old in a Hemingway feast, an uncertain Steppenwolf or an outsider in a world without exit or being spellbound in the underground with mystical notes or neo-gothic nostalgia, or observing the world receding in a field of rye; above all, being lonely is nothingness where nothing matters.
Let us assume, some people are born lonely, some people become lonely, and some people have loneliness thrust upon their brain. Sounds funny but it can be proven right. There are conventional as well as unconventional causes responsible for loneliness. Traditionally, it is linked to increased amount of stress, depression, anxiety, addiction, overall a cognitive decline as much as it is to loss of any long-term relationships or homesickness or fear of rejection.
If we make a short list of exceptional factors that cause loneliness, we may be surprised to find some consistent interrelated variables that bit by bit eat into the very essence of the rhythm we need for good living. Number one, living a life with too much restriction, be it self-inflicting or created by the surroundings, may make people feel lonely and isolated. Number two, no recognition for a commendable task, nobody quoting or citing even after years of experience can make people feel isolated and rejected which may eventually cause dejection. Number three, careless siblings or friends, who rebuke for mistakes rather than showing a better way, may also cause loneliness. Number four, seeing injustice, ignorance, intolerance and impatience may cause loneliness with a sense of hopelessness that humans are merely moving manikins trying to attain something, which they never can. Finally, holding on to morals and ideals that nobody else practises which gives rise to enormous amount of false hopes resulting in misunderstandings.
Lonely people are like wilderness, untended or trespassed frequently by selfishness and polluted by mire. Loneliness strikes when people want to be popular, seeking attention of the crowd. It strikes hard when people idolise celebrities on the screen and die to live their fantasized version of inertia, indulge in obsessions towards objects or materialistic gains while ignore sincere glances, friendly gestures and innocuous beckons. Today, imitation is the best action and spending a fortune on trying to look pretty is an anxiety beyond religion. The more one identifies with the majority, the easier it is for the others to recognize and wear the same mask. Courage is measured more in brainless following of motiveless principles than egalitarian reasonable moves. Loneliness strikes when beauty is seen in the body, not in the soul; and that incongruous ‘four-letter word’ suddenly changes its meaning.
People who can create and have visions enjoy loneliness more than they curse it. The world would not have epics about heroism, renaissance, metaphysical conceits, romantic imagination, transcendentalism and inner monologues if artists never invented or created magical pieces out of these ideals. There are people who still live by aphorisms; fight the deadly demons that others’ insincerity creates, and stare with stony eyes at the Viking ships sailing through the quiet fjords, the dormant volcanoes erupting near the Sicilian coast and pretend having an answer for everything. There are still passionate people in this heartless world, there are world travellers living in small villages, truth-seeking individuals, lovers of classics who live in imagination, have romantic hearts but do not express their desires.
Of course, there are other sides to it. Today people are involved with a lot more things than they used to be only a few decades ago. We are overexposed and commercialised as heavily as goods. As more and more comforts are added to life, some people tend to feel more frustrated, for either peer pressure or being unable to change or ‘accomplish’ as much as the next person. This frustration leads to a growing tendency of hating everyone around. Then, there are people who have been waiting for their soul-mates for ever but the perfect person never comes; this romantic isolation has a long-lasting effect which damages them permanently. Some tend to visit the old haunts where their agony started or the heart broke, physically or figuratively. There are people with childhood fantasies, who fancy competitions everywhere, with a tendency that life is only about winning or losing. Some cry for the lost time, with misunderstood sentiments, identify with historical figures or people who never existed. While some dwell upon abstract ideas, others gaze at dark mirrors and see things differently.
It is really lonely to notice so many people around with shattered logical grounds and a flawed sense of morality, with impoverished imagination and a poor taste for artistic endeavours. It is lonely to observe creativity, uniqueness are neither understood nor recognised, a propensity to show off is encouraged, and artificiality is embraced as holy as religious sentiments. Not all are equal and the ‘fixed’ issues with religion, racism and social classifications are just convenient shields influential people use to win votes from the powerless. Today’s leaders prefer people who cannot decide for themselves and have no question to ask. It is lonely to observe a high-risk corporate mindset instilled in the youth to channel their talent and hard-work to establish giant empires and big businesses. It is lonely to see the youth adopt meaningless principles and learn to defy and practice disobedience before they understand what appreciation means.
American poet Charles Bukowski said, ‘there is loneliness in this world so great that you can see it in the slow movement of the hands of a clock.’ Perhaps, we can. As far as it is a problem, like many others, the intensity may increase or decrease based on how we think about being alone. Maybe, it is easier working out solutions to loneliness triggered by conventional causes; popular research as well as medical science can suggest scores of remedies that lonely people can try. However, it is hard to find many working remedies for loneliness caused by unconventional situations. If we see loneliness as a ghost, most obviously we will be haunted by it. Anyway, a sensible alternative would be to get into the spirit of loneliness, calling it seclusion if we may, and learn to live with it, like many great personalities in the world. After all, the best tunes always come in solos.