The term ‘loneliness’ first crops up in English around 1800. Before then, the closest word was ‘oneliness’, simply the state of being alone. As with solitude – from the Latin ‘solus’ which meant ‘alone’ – ‘oneliness’ was not coloured by any suggestion of emotional lack. Solitude or oneliness was not unhealthy or undesirable, but rather a necessary space for reflection with God, or with one’s deepest thoughts. Since God was always nearby, a person was never truly alone. Skip forward a century or two, however, and the use of ‘loneliness’ – burdened with associations of emptiness and the absence of social connection – has well and truly surpassed oneliness.
Fay Bound Alberti, from One is the Loneliest Number, The History of a Western Problem
I have been exploring why I cringe a tad when I read yet another article about The Loneliness Epidemic, or the United Kingdom’s Minister of Loneliness. Do I not agree that loneliness is an issue? No that’s not it. Clearly there are levels of disconnection and isolation that I suspect have grown exponentially. Do I not believe it is an issue to be addressed? Loneliness has been with as long as love has been with us. Of course it should be addressed. How it should be addressed is another question.
My objections are three fold:
Calling it an epidemic suggests that loneliness is pathological, an illness
Which unwittingly creates stigma around it.
And finally, clumsily categorizing a poignant human experience that has many shades of subtle with one very broad brushstroke I think is a mistake.
In this current world of almost everyone looking engaged and happy on social media (making almost everyone feel bad or jealous with some regularity) and many unable to tolerate even brief periods of lack of contact (hence thumbing away on cellphones), I suspect looking at one’s feelings about loneliness can be – well perhaps this is not too dramatic- terrifying.
Let me also note that in the realms of depression, the distorted negative thinking can manifest as thoughts of “I have no one in my life and never will,” or “no one wants to be with me and it will always be this way.” The sense of disconnection that is part and parcel of depression, can produce the sense that one is floating alone in the universe. Irritability and overstimulation can make being with others difficult. Depression propagates isolation. The comfort that comes from what we love, evades us when we are depressed. So even the company of our favorite poems, music, even nature itself can leave us temporarily. The longing for others to understand us, can be hard to find when in the depths of symptoms. Is that a condition induced experience of a particular kind of loneliness. You bet it is.
That is also part of what I cringe about around this Loneliness Epidemic. People who suffer from depression do not need another layer of pathology and stigma.
I want to invite you to take a breath when it comes to this idea of loneliness and, as you are able, to look into it. Here is a hopefully gentle starting point.
In a recently published article The Surprising Truth about Loneliness, that is based on the findings of the BBC Loneliness Experiment, Claudia Hammond presents what she calls “counterintuitive findings:
• Younger people feel lonelier than older people.
• 41% of people think loneliness can be positive.
• People who feel lonely have social skills that are no better or worse than average.
• Winter is no lonelier than any other time of year.
• People who often feel lonely have higher levels of empathy that everyone else.
Hmm. Interesting isn’t it. Did that jostle any notions you had about loneliness?
So what are some simple ways to get better acquainted with the subtleties of loneliness?
Recognizing that loneliness is a human experience that no one (really no one) is immune from.
Recognizing that human life has cycles and stages, in small, medium and large. There will be times we are highly and intimately engaged and times of retreat and quiet.
Recognize that there is also stigma around not being in primary relationship and this seems to be an especially powerful pressure for younger people.
Recognizing lonelines can be painful, manifest as an ache in our heart. Because we are human we can very easily have a tendency to try to escape the pain or become self aggressive, equating loneliness with some kind of life failure.
Expand your vocabulary about what the shades of loneliness are in your life. Here are 162 possibilities. It might be dejection, homesickness, mourning. Or it could be solitude, privacy, -or one of my favorites on this list-splendid isolation.
And to me this is where the rubber meets the road. Get quiet and ask yourself what you are longing for, what you need. Marshall Rosenberg developed, taught and embodied what is called Non-Violent Communication. A core part of that system is becoming increasingly aware of our human needs. Are you longing for understanding, to be understood? Or perhaps you long to play. This is another way to expand your vocabulary so that you may know what it is you truly long for and need.
It’s been lovely to share this exploration with you. I notice a greater sense of ease with “oneliness.” It is a very important new word in my vocabulary. I also have a sense of excitement that the next time I feel lonely, I will have a feast of possibilities to describe what I am explicitly feeling and the distinct luxury of asking myself what I truly long for.
For more depression info and posts please visit my website SupportforDepression.com