A 1920s song by Irving Berlin sent a message that resonates deeply with many people today. From those whose spouse or close friend has died to the old and ill, from the child whose parents cannot look after it properly, from the mentally isolated to the terminally sad, loneliness is an infliction of real hardship on many people. The tendency to blame the lonely lingers on even though much work has been done on the causes and consequences of personal loss and despair. They suggest that many factors affect the feelings of isolation people suffer. Most of us have experienced some loneliness in life. Some have loneliness as an infliction too tough to handle. More suicides result from loneliness than from any other cause.
Early signs of loneliness occur when a child is young. Difficulty integrating with other children, few friends and those there are, often leeches, imaginary relationships with either real or invented personalities are all signs of impending loneliness. Children will naturally attach themselves to toys like the Teddy Bear or doll but they will usually get over these phantom relationships as they become sentient and able to form real connections with others. For all that, many feel isolated for much of their lives. Inflicted guilt, sometimes the result of religious pressure and persecution, is a common trigger. Deemed failure to achieve what is expected of you can lead to the destruction of self-worth, even becoming self-dislike.
Those who contribute to anyone’s loneliness have much to answer for.
What alleviates loneliness? A healthy disregard for the opinions of others must top the list. Of course, sensitive, intelligent, caring people’s points of view are worth paying attention to. They are how we learn. Your boss’s opinion may determine whether you have a job, so better not to totally ignore that. But accepting the views of others, whose own pressures and motives we don’t understand, can cause a damaging derangement of our personalities. You may work out on a boxing bag to strengthen your arms but you won’t punch yourself on the nose to achieve the same result.
Self-worth, or Personal Dignity as I prefer to call it, is not bought. It is the result of rational thinking about others more than about yourself. Sadly, much of the therapy associated with loneliness is of a naval-gazing nature, inclined to foster images of oneself that discourage logical thought and proactive behaviour. Getting off your butt and doing something is a crude but effective way of changing your personality. But not everyone can do that. It may be physical constraints or mental blockages that make it difficult or impossible. That is where others can help. In their keenness to be kind, friends often set about doing things themselves – baking a cake for tea or making arrangements for an outing. Excellent things to do, but so much better if the lonely do them themselves, make their own effort.
So the best way to diffuse loneliness is to work out what may be useful, amusing or fun for others – belonging to a social club, spending more time with the grandchildren, taking an interest in the developing world of technology, can all transform a person’s outlook. Write your ten best stories, take on the job of selling something trivial and harmless, hold a discussion about what to do. Make a splash, even if you don’t like doing so. Especially if you don’t like doing so.
Those kind people who would help a Lonely Someone might like to remember two views of the problem. The first is the telling verse in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a country churchyard” – a pointed and evocative poem written in 1742. The penultimate verse (the whole poem is well worth reading) goes like this:
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.
To me the lasting point on loneliness was made by the British author, Thomas Hardy, in his sensitive 1874 book “Far from the madding crowd”. A strong farm labourer, Gabriel Oak, has taught himself rudimentary agriculture. He is proposing to a neighbouring farmer, a classy lady who inherited her farm. His proposal ends with a vision of growing old together:
“And at home by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be – and whenever I look up, there will be you.”
All the effort and donations in the world don’t add up to time spent with a lonely soul. It’s one piece of literature where the speaker rightly puts himself first. “…there I shall be”.
It’s what the lonely long for.
Interesting that Hardy used the title “Far from the madding crowd” straight out of the Gray’s Elegy I also referred to. Many people have come to us with loneliness as a problem. Each needs a clear diagnosis of what is the cause. We haven’t succeeded with every instance – but we have with most of them.
Do you know someone lonely?
05 November 2022