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The Ambivalence of Loneliness

An old man soaking up the sun

Enjoying the solitude or feeling lonely? (Picture courtesy of Aravind Iyer)

As an infant baby, it is inconceivable that we can be left alone. Our life is punctuated by constant care, most of it provided by our mother, but a lot of which also comes from the close support system of father, grandmother, nanny, nurse and a few other near and dear ones. As our senses develop, we start to gain the ability to tell people apart. With the onset of that ability, we partition the world into an inner circle which consists of our constant care-givers, and the rest of the world. We are almost unconditionally trusting and intimate with those in our inner circle, and at the same time, reluctant to mingle with the rest. We want the company of our near ones, and solitude from strangers. We don’t want to be lonely, and yet we want to be left alone.

This ambivalence continues as we grow up from being a toddler, a child, a teenager and all the way into adulthood. As we are growing up, our primary method of learning is by following the example of another, and yet we like to learn at our pace, not one laid down by the exemplar. As a first-timer learning a new skill or at a new job, we feel the need to reach out, to benefit from the experience of others, but to become experienced ourselves, we also need our space to consolidate what we have learned. Then we need to reach out again to show to others and ourselves what we have learned. We can all look back and remember the comforting words of a mentor and also the occasional solitude that forged our personality. We cherish company and solitude.

But if we can all relate to this, then how is it that we find some people to be more social or reserved than others? Maybe it is because each person finds a uniquely different mix of company and solitude that works for them. It is also because life is more complicated than cyclically alternating needs to be encouraged and to be self-made. We are never into exactly one thing at a given time and neither are we precisely imitating or consolidating or demonstrating each of the multitude of things that we are engaged in. Looking from the other side, the same goes for all the people that are teaching us or judging us. So we try to imitate someone who is unwilling to show the example, and someone may try to judge us at a time when we need the solitude to convince ourselves of what we know. People at different points of this cycle and going through it at different speeds, keep interacting with one another making up our social and professional lives. And in this hubbub of interactions, we define notions like extrovert, introvert, loner, people person, shy, outgoing among many others, to identify patterns of people’s behaviour.

Between the reserved and the social, it is the social that is the more socially accepted pattern of behavior. This casts loneliness in a negative light. Indeed, loneliness can be a terrible thing. Being cut off and unable to reach out, cripples us in a fundamental way. Continuous loneliness depletes us, killing us softly like the increasingly hot water kills the frog in the jar. Like the frog cannot tell when the water’s become too hot to be habitable, the lonely can sometimes not understand that they have become so, and that they need to make a special effort to reach out. Loneliness is as much physical as it is mental. One can be among people and yet be lonely, connected digitally with folks at our fingertips and yet reluctant and withdrawn. A lot of it depends on what we are looking to share and learn. As we grow older, we accumulate so much knowledge and understanding. This is results in some things which are so contextual and so derived that only someone who is steeped in the kind of experiences we have had, can understand or relate to what we would like to share. Or it has to be someone who has a lot of patience and kindness.

But being alone is not all gloomy. There are some amongst us who prefer to be alone more often than not. We couch it in terms of enjoying “one’s own company” to make others understand, especially those for whom company is seldom crowd. Being alone empowers and frees up our thought process. We are defined by what we think, say and do. In the presence of another, we may think a hundred things, but we say only a dozen and do only a couple. Left to ourselves, we have no need to select a dozen from a hundred, for there are no companions to appease. This is the freedom of solitude. Paradoxically, the thirst to be alone can often be quenched in a crowd. In a big gang of friends or family with much catching up and cross talk, each individual does not get put under the social microscope. The solitude seeker can then merely keep up with the ebb and flow of activity, while discreetly enjoying being in their own wonderful world.

I am myself quite ambivalent about being social or being alone. I have felt and enjoyed the strange comfort in being alone for hours, like on a 10 hour drive to get somewhere. At the same time, it can be quite a drag to not be with people. At one stage, I had decided I wanted to have lunch with a different co-worker each day of the week. Maybe it’s just me but I do think it applies more generally. We all want to be with people, and yet not feel threatened by them. This is the ambivalence of loneliness, the fear of being alone pitted against the fear of losing our space.

Now it may seem unusual, but there is something that can provide the benefit of being alone without the pain of loneliness, and it is something we all do. Work. Work is when we make something new — like cooking, coding, writing, making a presentation, consolidating meeting minutes or even thinking work to sort things out in the mind. You need to be left alone to do it well, and yet you are obliged to reach out before and afterwards, insulating you from the possibility of loneliness. Playing music in a band is another great example, where each player has to hold their own, alone, and yet sound good together. I think it is work which keeps us going, helping us each find our unique balance of company and solitude, without us consciously realising it. Perhaps the lack of work is the worst curse that could befall us — without work the solitude can be chilling and the company empty.

So if you find yourself alone, contemplate and enjoy your solitude. Reflect on what you know, how far you have come from a previous self. And if you feel lonely, nothing to worry. Just roll up your sleeves and work. And show your work to someone.