For reasons that had much to do with the war, the death of my mother before I even got to know her and a certain assumed stoicism the English middle class were supposed to exhibit, I grew up a lonely child. My loneliness did sometimes cause me to contemplate suicide, but everyone thinks about that occasionally, especially during the Trying Teens. I didn’t attempt to kill myself but I nevertheless experienced a good deal of loneliness. Fear of rejection was my driver.
The sense of isolation didn’t begin to leave me until I was 60, even though I had had the kindest, most patient, longsuffering first wife anyone could imagine. Nearly thirty years after 60 I still get occasional bouts of loneliness but can now step back from them. My work from 1990 onwards made me increasingly interested in other people.They have greater problems than me. ‘Count your blessings’ may be heartless but doing so works when you tell yourself to do it.
The unforgivable nuggets of advice of ‘going out and enjoying yourself’, ‘making a few friends’, are about as helpful as a cream cake to a bulimic. They often lead to alcoholism, drugs and sexual behavior that make you even more unhappy with yourself. It is a vicious circle of introspection, hedonism and self-loathing. The cycle is a vortex. Most people recognise when they are about to get finally sucked into it and step back with rigorous discipline, exercise and self control. These are the only remedies for loneliness and don’t let anyone fool you otherwise.
Being lectured doesn’t work, either. So why am I doing it? The reason is that as part of the disciplined recovery process it is helpful to do some roleplays of situations in which you have to initiate and sustain conversations. Try examples of when you have to speak in public and of times when you find yourself in awesome company and feel that you cannot keep up. You can always keep up in any group, however erudite and super-intelligent it is. People often don’t, simply because they are scared to try, to take the first step.
What is the mechanism that precipitates the first step? The answer is Curiosity. Seems strange? It is. Imagine you are a duck swimming quietly along the river on a balmy summer morning. Looking ahead for signs of food you see something on the river bank. On closer inspection it is a small animal – a weasel, as it happens. The creature is dancing to and fro, from a small rivulet, perhaps a little tributary of the river. You go to look more closely.
As you do so the weasel retreats further up the rivulet. You follow it, fascinated by the antics and wondering if the small mammal is suffering from dementia of some kind or is drunk. Before you know where you are, you find yourself in a sort of net tunnel which gets smaller and smaller until whoosh! you are caught by the hunter whose trap you have swum into. You make an excellent dinner for the family. Well, naturally, I don’t want you to become someone’s roast duck. So there are two lessons in one in this little tale.
First, curiosity will absorb you, take you out of yourself, fix your mind on other more interesting things. Curiosity builds on itself. Once you start you will have no difficulty carrying on. Second, beware the trap that curiosity can set. All enquiries are traps, all solutions, potential roastings. You have to be sharp, alert and skeptical of what appear to be innocent entertainments. They might just turn out to be a British Prime Minister at work for all you know.
If you’ve read this far you will have concluded either that I have a miracle cure for loneliness or that I am mad. Somewhere in between, I think. But at least I have got you curious enough to read this. At least there could be a much more acceptable conclusion to the duck demise tale. So, go on, you invent it. Make the duck story good for your old granny who is hard of hearing as well as for your grandchild who is hyperactive. See if you can make them both pay attention.
When you can you, you’re not lonely anymore.