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Loneliness: Is there anyone out there?

A LONELY four-mat hut-

All day no one in sight.

Alone, sitting beneath the window,

Only the continual sound of falling leaves. [1]


During the Covid-19 pandemic, for the first time it seems to me, I have seen in UK media, significant reporting on loneliness and the mental health impact of isolation for single people. In my mind are images of single – mostly older men and women – standing on their doorsteps speaking to a reporter some two meters or more away. They may say they are lonely in a casual, light-hearted way, or in a way that communicates sadness and struggle.  

This reporting has been very touching as I feel it takes great courage to say you are lonely. You risk stepping outside of an ‘I am fine’ façade to show vulnerability; you risk feeling you are burdening another person, and you risk not being heard. 

Loneliness of course is not an age-related condition. Children, adolescents, and adults feel lonely. And it can be a feeling state experienced even when you are with people if you don’t feel emotionally connected to them or understood by them. 

Loneliness can feel like a pain in the heart, being both heart-breaking and an effect of heartbreak. Much contemporary music speaks of heartbreak in the context of romantic relationships. Here is one beautiful and stirring piece for me: Mark Ronson & YEBBA ‘Don’t Leave Me Lonely’

To feel there is nobody there for you is simply one of the most difficult feelings for a human being to bear. Why is loneliness so painful?  Perhaps it is because we are born to relate: a human baby cannot survive without someone looking after it in a caring and engaged way.  When that relatedness is broken, we feel something is wrong.  

Abandonment is a term commonly used in the literature in psychoanalysis/therapy. Here, I will define it as a vulnerable person experiencing the loss of an emotional connection to another significant person (s). The fear of abandonment generates all sorts of defensive behaviour from self-reliance to helplessness and neediness which can be too demanding for others. 

We commonly distract ourselves from painful feelings including loneliness with busyness, and addictive behaviours, some of which can be self-destructive driving others further away and a lonely person further away from a comfortable relationship with themselves.

Reaching out by telling someone you are lonely, only to be brushed off, not heard or received, can feel like a shocking jolt of pain of a different kind to the pain of longing. Somewhere inside there is a recoil, a gasping from it. But at least there is still feeling. If many of these attempts to connect result in disappointment, it is possible to see how deadness and withdrawal can set in, needs denied and buried. This kind of lonely person ends up not really being alive.

Loneliness and aloneness are different. To be alone yet content is a developmentally mature emotional state and result of secure attachments. Good nourishing relationships have been internalised and are sustaining even when they are absent.

We can feel incredibly lonely when we grieve but that is a whole topic and not something that can be dealt with here in a few words. 

Loneliness may or may not be a condition of 21st century lifestyles. If community living was how Westerners survived in past eras pre-Industrialisation, I can imagine loneliness was not so prevalent. But then some Yogis and Rishis of ancient India and perhaps the equivalent in other cultures, sought isolation, becoming hermits in caves, in order to become enlightened and transcend the human condition, writing poetry and mantras, gifts to later generations. 

Here is another poem by the 18th century Japanese Zen hermit monk, Ryokan:

                        WALKING beside a clear running river, I come to a farmhouse.

                        The evening chill has given way to the warmth of the

                                    morning sun.

                        Sparrows gather in a bamboo grove, voices fluttering

                                    here and there.

                        I meet the old farmer returning to his home;

                        He greets me like a long-lost friend.

                        At his cottage, the farmer’s wife heats sake

                        While we eat freshly pickled vegetables and chat.

                        Together, gloriously drunk, we no long know

                        The meaning of unhappiness.[2]

[1] Stevens, J (1997 p.41) One Robe One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan New York: Weatherhill 

[2] Ibid, p25

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