No Hard Feelings: Loneliness
Loneliness (n.): The condition of being solitary (1580), or the feeling of being dejected from want of companionship or sympathy (1814), from ‘lone’ derived from a contraction of ‘all one’ c.1300AD from Old English all ana, ‘unaccompanied, all by oneself,’ literally ‘wholly oneself’.
Famously felt by Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. “I am an unfortunate and deserted creature, I look around and I have no relation or friend upon earth.”
Famously not felt by Calvin in Calvin and Hobbes. “Things are never quite as scary when you’ve got a best friend.”
What does loneliness mean to you? A solitary figure in a long, empty landscape, with no one around them for miles? A remote house atop an isolated island, cut off from nearby villages? Or perhaps, more personally, standing at the edge of a party, surrounded by people but talking to no one?
Loneliness takes many forms and it existed before humanity. Yet the modern day seems to have brought with it a particularly cruel and painful kind of loneliness characterised by an acute awareness of everything you are not a part of. And it’s complicated, too: you don’t have to be alone to be lonely, but being alone does not always lead to loneliness. Basically, you know it when you see it (and when you feel it).
While we mostly think of loneliness as a negative feeling, it is also an unshakeable part of our species’s capacity for connection and intimacy – as natural, in many ways, as any other evolved human trait. Taking a brief look at its history reveals that it hasn’t always been associated with the bad.
You don’t have to be alone to be lonely, but being alone does not always lead to loneliness.
Humans are highly social creatures. We evolved an innate, biologically-driven ability to develop and form interpersonal connections at a young age and communication with others is the cornerstone of human civilization and development. Our predisposition to connection and community led to a suspicion of those who sought out solitude.
John Evelyn, a diarist writing in 1667, parodied the excessive fear that 17th century society had of being alone: “solitude produces ignorance, renders us barbarous, feeds revenge, disposes us to envy, creates witches, dispeoples the world.” But by the end of the 18th century, conventional societal fear of being alone had paved the way for a subversive pursuit of loneliness as an act of artistic or creative enlightenment and rebellion.
While today loneliness means a negative feeling, the Romantic era used ‘loneliness’ to describe the physical condition of solitude. Painters and poets deliberately sought solitude in natural landscapes to create transformative spiritual and emotional experiences that could inform their art.
“Nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd.”Georg Simmel, 19th century sociologist
One of the most famous Romantic paintings, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1817) by Caspar David Friedrich, depicts a solitary figure surrounded by a vast landscape, his back to the observer. This kind of loneliness was transcendent: the individual subsumes himself to the larger world around him, awed by its enormity, beauty and power. The triviality and mundanity of everyday life fades and a new understanding of one’s place in the world emerges.
But following artistic forays into the sublime side of loneliness, the Victorian era ushered in a fresh aversion to loneliness – and, arguably, with good cause. Cities grew into industrialised metropolises and feelings of loneliness grew from the overcrowded, dirty and chaotic city rather than the empty countryside. Loneliness became a description of a painful emotion, rather than a physical state of being.
For the first time, people began describing themselves as being lonely while surrounded by people. 19th century sociologist Georg Simmel concluded, after a lifetime of studying social networks and fragmentation, that “nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd” and that cities cause individuals to feel “surrounded on all sides by closed doors.” It’s a feeling that has stuck.
Loneliness is an unavoidable part of having the ability to love and be loved by others.
An epidemic of loneliness was pushed to new heights during Covid lockdowns. Busyness, solitary living, social media, financial barriers and lack of social welfare are all thought to contribute towards the problem with our over-stimulated but under-connected modern lives.
And an even less tangible form of loneliness has developed in modern life. One that is born out of the feeling of not being understood: feeling alienated from your family’s beliefs, at odds with your career path or colleagues, or simply that in the passage of time, an old friend no longer understands you as they once did.
Loneliness is slippery and eludes an exact and immovable definition. It can arise both from the confrontation of the unbounded wilderness of life as well as from the awareness of the rigid expectations, opinions and pathways of community.
It is an unavoidable part of having the ability to love and be loved by others and reminds us of the vitality of connection. And, when the feeling does inevitably unfold, it is at least one small comfort to know that we will never be alone in our experience of loneliness.
The Christmas period can become a painful reminder of loneliness for many people. There are many incredible charities across the UK and the rest of the world that work to bring connection, community and friendship to people struggling with loneliness: