I always notice them when I’m walking along the street. There’s no identifying characteristic, necessarily, it’s just something that I can tell, the same way a pet can tell when it’s about to rain or how a person can sense when someone is telling the truth or not. I spot them in cafes and bars, eating ramen by a window or drinking whiskey while scrolling on their phone. In gyms, grocery stores and parks. They’re ubiquitous. I see them because I know them, because I am one of them.
Just go to an open mic night at a comedy club and you’ll see what they mean.
It would be easy to blame it on the free market, on capitalism, on society’s propensity to perpetuate individualism above all else, the gig economy and the dissipation of labor unions, religions and fraternal organizations. There’s also laptops and iPhones, tablets and video games, movies, TV shows and, the great architect of escapism, the written word.
There’s plenty of blame to go around.
It’s easier than ever to be alone and, by extension, lonely. We’re surrounded by extensions of ourselves. We feel far too comfortable to contend with someone else’s idiosyncrasies and affectations. Why bother? I have Apple and Samsung. Alfonso Cuaron and Kathryn Bigelow. Jonathan Franzen and Joan Didion. I can Whatsapp you, FaceTime you, Gmail you. Sure, when I do this I don’t feel you, don’t touch you, don’t smell you. But it beats the challenge of meeting you face to face, of facing the world.
There is the reality of having to go and make a living, but then again, I can teach English to children in China or Argentina from the comfort of my bedroom. Food? Deliveroo, Seamless, GrubHub, apps deliver us from the strain of being personable over the phone. Toilet paper? There’s an app for that, too. It’s called Amazon. Drugs? Just send a text and wait for a knock on the door. Should I invite the delivery man in for a cup of coffee? Nah.
And what about sex? That’s pretty essential, right? Well, there are a number of obvious ways that urge can be fulfilled and it isn’t like having a one night stand will make a person feel any less lonely.
Public health officials have labeled loneliness an epidemic. Just go to an open mic night at a comedy club and you’ll see what they mean.
Great Britain’s Office for National Statistics reports that renters are more lonely than homeowners. The office also reports that people who have little trust of others in their local area feel lonely more often — pretty much accounting for most inhabitants of any given major city. That’s the strange paradox of city life, the more densely populated the area, the more isolated we are.
In early 2018, Britain appointed Tracey Crouch as its first Minister of Loneliness, something Prime Minister Theresa May has called, “The sad reality of modern life.”
Health care provider Cigna recently released a poll that says 13 percent of Americans feel that zero people know them well. Researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles state that loneliness is worse in each successive generation — younger adults aged 16 to 24 years reported feeling lonely more often than those in older age groups. It would be impossible to even get started on the pain of those in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, rehab clinics and prisons.
Forty-five thousand Americans will take their own lives this year. Seventy thousand will die from drug overdoses. Depression and suicide are certified consequences of loneliness gone untreated. So are cardiovascular disease, stroke and increased anxiety.
We live in a world that’s not even about consumption, merely sheer pursuit.
I’m wary of lonely people, scared of the ones I spot, scared of them because it’s like looking into a mirror, and it’s horrifying to see a copy of yourself. People (fucking) frighten me. It’s baffling: no matter the diversity of our backgrounds, we’ve all been led to the same isolating destination.
I used to think that loneliness can be cured by being around more people. I was wrong. It only makes you feel more lonely.
After spending several months in isolation completing my first novel, I took a job as a content writer at a tech company in order to escape myself. With that job came not just the hours in the workplace but also new social opportunities — events, seminars, friends. I recently quit that job.
Given that loneliness tends to be a taboo topic, people avoid discussing it. In an environment where topics of emotional importance are neglected, nothing is conversed upon but casual nothings, leading to a state of further isolation. The strangest part of being in that office every day was feeling less lonely when I clocked out and was finally alone again with my books, my writing, my technology. I found that I need isolation in order to have a sense of identity. Without that identity, I felt nothing but alone.
There is no permanent cure to our societal loneliness. There are simply mitigating hobbies to jump on: friendships, romances, health food, drink, drugs, bocce ball, meditation — though all of these exercises can become obsessions that further isolate. Paths to ephemeral joy lay bountifully before us, but none will wash away our perpetual loneliness.
For proof of just how inescapable loneliness is, pick up a thesaurus. It has no antonym. The closest would be ‘popular,’ and we all know how lonely the popular kids are.
Much of our culture has been shaped to make us feel more alone, to create in us a state of constant dissatisfaction, of emptiness. We live in a world that’s not even about consumption, merely sheer pursuit.
Yet, however debilitating loneliness may be, I am not lamenting it. Those of us who are lonely need not fret. Our lonesomeness is here to help. Everyone is lonely, so we are not alone, and knowing we’re not alone may make us a little less lonely. Happy New Year.
Photo credit: Vladimir Kudinov.