Albert Camus once stated that, “in order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” What one can understand from this is that solitude gives us the space we need to contemplate the world we experience. It’s a private time for us to go over our day, as well as our reactions to it. Our emotions, thoughts, worries, desires… They all become clearer to us when we scrutinize them in the light of ourselves. Yet despite this, most of us equate solitude with loneliness and therefore misery. Recent studies claim that three out of four people suffer from “loneliness”. Countries the world over have declared that there’s an epidemic of loneliness, though that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, what we suffer from might not be loneliness. It might just be our inability to understand and embrace solitude and therefore ourselves.
Simply defined, loneliness is the longing for human connection. It’s being unable to form a true connection with others when we’re surrounded by others, and similarly being unable to connect with ourselves when we’re alone. This can leave us feeling lonely, for example, when we’re home or out alone, despite being with ourselves or even surrounded by others. We’ve become so disconnected that we think we’re lonely when we don’t have anyone other than ourselves to talk to. Writer Hannah Arendt has said that one of the most positive connections we can form is with ourselves when we are alone: “Thinking, existentially speaking is a solitary but not lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company”.
By conversing with ourselves, we can explore our inner worlds and understand who we are as people. A lot of us lead these lives where when we come back home from work or school, we feel as though we are diving into isolation. Throughout the day we run from one place to another, a never-ending list of chores in our hands. We barely have time to say “hello” to the people around us, let alone have a proper conversation. At night we come home, maybe make some dinner, turn on the TV, go on Facebook or Twitter to chat with people, mistaking this for social interaction. We use these distractions as an escape from solitude. They allow us to escape our own thoughts and emotions. We run away from our own selves and what’s worse is that we don’t even realize it. Pretty soon we get so used to this that in our minds, being alone becomes synonymous with being lonely.
Alternatively, maybe we go out at night, grab dinner or have a drink with some friends. Though consider the substance of most of those conversations. Oftentimes, we can spend hours with people and never exchange anything but smalltalk and pleasantries. This isn’t a judgement—we all do this pretty often. This is more a call to awareness that these light conversations can leave us feeling still disconnected and lonely. We rarely share what’s really going on in our minds and hearts. We don’t dive into the anxiety or pain we’re feeling, or the struggles and challenges we’re facing. If we do, we’re often met with a sympathetic smile and a “there, there” or “have a drink”.
In our minds we interpret this as being social, when in reality we aren’t forming a real human connection. Just as we discuss loving ourselves before being able to truly love someone else, we must also first learn to feel comfortable with and embrace spending time with ourselves, before seeking out remedies for our loneliness through companionship or distractions.
If we want to form genuine connections and if we want to be rid of our loneliness and restlessness, then we must first change our relationship and understanding of “solitude”. We must redefine what being alone means for us, along with our relationship with ourselves. Only then can we begin to form true connections with others.
We all experience difficult emotions sometimes: Anger, fear, loneliness… These emotions are remnants of the survival mechanisms that kept us alive during the stone age. We feel fear because it allows us to run from danger. We feel anger because it propels us to fight an enemy. Loneliness works almost the same way.
Consider this: why are we able to feel lonely? Why do we have the need to connect with others? Humans survived for hundreds of years by banding together. To quote Game of Thrones: “When winter comes, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.” To survive winter and other difficult situations, we need others. We need a tribe, family, friends… In the past human beings used to live in tribes of 150-200 people. Everyone in the tribe knew and supported each other, because they needed and depended on one another. They had actual conversations because ephemeral ones would never serve them. They shared information, experiences, thoughts, feelings… They imparted what they learned to the generations that came after them… Driven by their needs, they formed actual communities and relationships. So what happened between then and now?
We still have an innate need to connect. When we lack that connection with others, we begin to feel lonely. But imagine if we couldn’t feel lonely. Imagine that “loneliness” did not exist. If that were the case, would you ever feel the need or desire to go out of your house and hang out with people? Would you ever seek friendships or relationships? Of course not. So, in a weird way loneliness prompts us to get up, walk away from the TV and seek human connection. Our ability to feel lonely is to a degree responsible for our families, love lives and friendships. That is, as long as we are able to properly define loneliness and our relationship to it.
If we’re lucky – and most of us are luckier than we think – we’ll form bonds with people who will appreciate the trust and confidence we have in them. Not only that, but they’ll reciprocate it. That is to say, they will trust us with parts of themselves as well. They will acknowledge the risk we’re taking in trusting them little by little and also begin to approach us with more about themselves. Over time, if that mutual trust is respected and preserved, it will grow over time and develop into a dependable and strong connection. This connection gives us as humans a great deal of comfort, support and resilience. In a sense it translates as, “I see who you are. This is who I am. And I am here for you”.
Loneliness isn’t an incurable disease. Yet it does take an active effort to consider why we feel lonely and how we can take steps to ease that loneliness. This requires us to lean into feeling more comfortable with ourselves and more comfortable with the idea of trusting others. Yet, no amount of time with other people will ever quench feelings of loneliness if we at first cannot enjoy our own presence and essence.
Translated by: Zeynep Sen