Loneliness and solitude

The beauty of being alone with oneself

Published - October 17, 2021 12:39 am IST

Lonely young woman looking through concrete window. This is entirely 3D generated image.

Lonely young woman looking through concrete window. This is entirely 3D generated image.

Loneliness, one of the most important public health problems of our times, became greatly exacerbated during the pandemic. The past 18 months of isolation has been described as the “loneliness epidemic”, but our understanding of loneliness remains incomplete.

For a start, there are no widely accepted definitions of loneliness and the ones that exist are variations of “perceived absence of others”. How best can the “perception of absence” be explained? Is it akin to a kind of pain or can it be an intentional perception? Whatever it may be, larger questions about loneliness remain. From one perspective, it is a psychosocial phenomenon. It can also be conceived metaphysically as a necessary aspect of the human condition.

We were social creatures from the beginning, and the hominins from East Africa could not have survived one night alone because they were dependent on one another from the start. The age we have entered now in which we exist apart from one another is unlike any other before. Long before today’s Covidosphere, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes claimed that in the natural state, before authority rose to keep us in check, we were engaged in a war, “every man against every man”. When competition and individualism had become the religion of the time, sole traders, self-starters and self-made men and women appeared in plenty to celebrate their emotional self-sufficiency. Structural changes to the concept of society occur when doctors practise telemedicine instead of face-to-face consultations. Aspirations of young people have changed and 40% of the youth in a survey preferred quick wealth and fame instead of regular jobs. Research from the University of Milan suggests that national economies change when social changes happen, but happiness does not rise correspondingly to rise in income.

Today, loneliness has developed into epidemic proportions afflicting the young and old. Factories and schools are closed and as evidence of change, YouTube has replaced the cinema theatre. People turn to their televisions for comfort, notwithstanding the research suggesting that those who watch a lot of TV derive less satisfaction from it. When social connections are cut out, that can become a cause of early death and twice as deadly as obesity.

Some say the cure for loneliness is solitude. For them, the company of others has never been a cure. Others say the surest cure for vanity is a liberal dose of loneliness. The introspectively minded find that being alone with oneself adds beauty. Sunsets acquire a special hue for the solitary self in communion with nature. Though there is much talk that it will all get back to normal once we are fully vaccinated, it may be wise to forget what was before, appreciate what still remains and brace oneself for what comes next.


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