I have been lonely in the past, but I am not anymore. I know I might well be lonely again in the future, and, when that happens, I’ll have to remind myself that the feeling will not last. That’s one of the good things about getting older: we’ve seen it before. Some call it, ‘wisdom’ but it might be more appropriately described as an ability to notice cyclical patterns and take comfort from them. The more years we put in, the better we get at giving a solemn nod to familiar emotional or physical patterns on their passing orbit, or recognising the same life events taking another bite at you as they come calling, things you were certain you would never again repeat. The wisdom isn’t necessarily demonstrated in managing to avoid a repetition of how you behaved or felt before (though well done if you have pulled that one off), rather the wisdom is in seeing something coming around again and learning to be a little less afraid of whichever pattern you are passing through or is passing through you.
Loneliness only ever comes in negative wrapping paper, yet there are up-sides to it, (which are far from apparent to those in its grip). It is a close relation to peace and quiet, which is a good thing – right? But I am being deliberately obtuse because I know it’s only good when we chose its timing, when we are in control of the schedule: ‘my head’s turned with life, work, children, I could really do with a week of loneliness to fix me.’ It doesn’t work that way. Nor will a lonely person necessarily be ‘fixed’ by being thrown into a group of gregarious strangers. Frazzled by an excess of company or drained by a dearth of it, sometimes the only thing to do is to sit it out and know it will eventually pass.
Nowadays, I am often alone but I rarely feel lonely. When loneliness comes, it ambushes me, making a surprise attack from behind a hedge as I walk home of an evening, twisting its knife as I wish K. was at home waiting for me, and that I could sit at the kitchen table and tell him such and such about the day. Usually it’s something inconsequential: what he said/she said, what happened, what I bought, something I saw. I keep my feet moving forward and walk with whatever it is that has mugged my emotions until it peels off at Picardie Place, or else it comes home with me and hangs out for a while, though these days it usually disappears by morning. The main things is I’ve got the measure of it and I know now it does me less harm if I say hello to it, then let it be.
In Olivia Laing’s book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the art of being alone, she describes a very particular brand of particular loneliness that comes from living in a city (in her case a stint living in New York). She’s surrounded by millions of people and she is lonely. Here’s how she ends the book:
“Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each other. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, the physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness: what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.”