- The way I see it:
Loneliness and solitude are not directly opposites, but they are extremely different by definition. And the first, is not an intrinsically consequence of the second.
"Loneliness only occurs when that specific, individual requirement goes unmet" -as Olivia Laing beautifully states in her New York Times's article-. Like the specific requirement to freely move, act and do at our own will. None of them being our choice, irretrievably entails loneliness, discarting solitude.
One of the historical and unprecedented facts is that the loneliness we are individually experiencing it’s a shared state, inhabited by most of us at the moment. An acutely unpleasant feeling, that could lead to overdosis of anxiety, fear and despair.
On its defense, Olivia Laing asserts that the weird gift of loneliness is that it grounds us in our common humanity, reminding us, now more than ever, that nothing really matters if we can't shared it. Really share it.
Now, that we are all alone, but, on the same boat, it might be a great opportunity to learn the lesson.
In the winter of 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Edward Hopper began a new painting: a New York City diner at night, seen from outside, its four alienated inhabitants trapped behind a bubble of green glass. Of all Hopper’s paintings, “Nighthawks” encapsulates urban loneliness, the feeling of being unable to connect despite being surrounded by millions of others. Over the decades, it’s become so emblematic of this unhappy state that it’s regularly subject to parody. Sometimes the melancholy incumbents wear party hats; sometimes the diner floats in space. This week, a new version started circulating on social media. All the color had drained away. The people had vanished. The diner was empty.
We’re all lonely now. We’re all cut off from each other, trapped inside the walls of our own domestic space, the 21st-century version of the medieval anchorite. The seething city is on lockdown, or soon to be. Social distancing is vital, but that doesn’t make it easy. One of the inevitable costs will be an increase in our loneliness.
Loneliness isn’t the same thing as solitude, nor is it solitude’s inevitable consequence. As Hopper’s painting demonstrates, it can arise just as easily in situations of proximity. You can be lonely in a crowd, lonely in a marriage — or, on the other hand, content and at ease in a mountain cabin. We all vary in our need for intimacy, closeness, connection. Loneliness only occurs when that specific, individual requirement goes unmet.
Loneliness is a taboo state in our social world, and part of its extraordinary pain has to do with shame. There’s an abiding feeling that it’s a punishment for social failure, an inability to be sufficiently popular or liked. This isn’t true under ordinary circumstances, and it’s certainly not true under quarantine. But there are other ways in which loneliness causes pain, too. It has real, tangible effects on our brains and bodies, and it’s important to understand how that process works in order to be able to protect ourselves.
As the social neurologist John Cacioppo and his team at the University of Chicago discovered, the feeling of loneliness — the subjective experience itself, not the bare fact of being alone — brings about hypervigilance to social threat. This state, which is entered into unknowingly, makes the lonely person far more alert to signs of rejection or exclusion than those of warmth or friendliness. It’s a vicious circle, in that each misreading of social nuance becomes evidence for further withdrawal, causing loneliness to become steadily more entrenched.
Because hypervigilance is entered into invisibly, it has to be consciously recognized and corrected. In the current circumstances, most social encounters are likely to happen on the internet or by phone. Perhaps a tweet isn’t liked, or a message is read but not replied to, the blue tick inflaming the sense of going unregarded. Rather than jumping to alarmed conclusions about being left out or disliked, it’s vital to remember that a bias is occurring, and to keep maintaining and participating in social contact.
Part of the reason the current crisis is so frightening is that it sets off a fear not just of being in quarantine but also of being abandoned altogether, the nightmare of the social animal. This is what lies behind all those empty cities in science fiction films: the terror of being the last one left, patrolling deserted grocery aisles, like a desolate, despairing Will Smith in “I Am Legend,” the resources running out, no one left to love. This feeling is profoundly isolating to experience and yet it’s also a point of connection with billions of strangers. One of the hardest things to grasp about loneliness is that it’s a shared state, inhabited by a multitude at any time. Whatever anxiety you’re experiencing right now, you’re not alone. Everyone is frightened of being left behind.
The need for connection is so central to our being that to experience its lack plunges the body into a state of minor emergency, driving up cortisol and adrenaline and contributing to a feeling of what for most people will already be peak anxiety. There are antidotes, from simple breathing exercises to deliberately noticing small pleasures in the physical environment: a budding leaf, a cloud, the taste of toast. The natural world continues, and paying attention to it is a way of grounding terror — remembering that whatever else may happen, spring is on the way.
But loneliness isn’t just a negative state, to be vanquished or suppressed. There’s a magical aspect to it too, an intensifying of perception that led Virginia Woolf to write in her diary of 1929: “If I could catch the feeling, I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.” Woolf was no stranger to quarantine. Confined to a sickbed for long periods, she saw something thrilling in loneliness, a state of lack and longing that can be intensely creative.
Most of us are perennially short of time, and now we’re left hanging in it. This is an opportunity for a different kind of connection. During a long spell of loneliness, I found that art was among the richest consolations, and that voyaging into other people’s worlds by way of novels, paintings and films had a magical capacity for making me feel connected, seen, met.
My quarantine stash includes the beautiful, eerie film “Safe” by Todd Haynes, about a woman assailed by a mysterious illness. I’m going to read more Dickens. I can’t go and see the David Hockney show at the National Portrait Gallery in London in person, but I can pore over his drawings in books, loving the tenderness with which he regards his family and friends.
Love is not just conveyed by touch. It moves between strangers; it travels through objects and words in books. There are so many things available to sustain us now, and though it sounds counterintuitive to say it, loneliness is one of them. The weird gift of loneliness is that it grounds us in our common humanity. Other people have been afraid, waited, listened for news. Other people have survived. The whole world is in the same boat. However frightened we may feel, we have never been less alone.
- The New York Times, by Olivia Laing,