Although my memory of the details is vague, I think the following happened when I was eight years old, living in a village in central Saskatchewan and attending a one-room school with grades one through eight. Probably it was a hot day in June, we girls were wearing summer dresses, and because it was most likely a Friday afternoon, when everybody tends to slack off (or did in those days), our young teacher had sent us outside, around to the back of the school, to our baseball diamond. There, we were all—somehow, despite our being different ages, sizes, and genders—organized to play softball. I didn’t enjoy sports, wasn’t athletic, was a tiny child, and was bored. I remember standing in the batting lineup forever, as there was double the required number to a side, until finally it would be my turn and I would be berated by my teammates when I would inevitably strike out. Because of all this, after a while, I wandered away from the game, around to the front of the empty school, and sat down, alone, on the wooden steps leading inside. Eventually, a sweating older girl came panting around the side of the building, looking for a drink of water. Seeing me, she hesitated and asked why I was sitting there by myself. I probably said that I didn’t want to play ball—our mother didn’t allow us to shrug our shoulders or say “I dunno” when she spoke to us, so I would have said something. She went on inside and at once came rushing back out, swiping water from her chin, and ran back to the game.
She must have told the teacher where I was. “Oh,” the teacher must have said, and knowing I wouldn’t be getting into mischief, seeing no other reason to insist I come back, the teacher left me there. This was just after the Second World War, when experienced teachers were in short supply. Ours was a teenager herself, with zero knowledge of child psychology, and she probably just couldn’t be bothered. So I sat alone, listening to the crack of the bat on the ball and the cries of my classmates floating to me through the warm spring air over the roof of the school.
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But, mostly, I remember sitting there, elbows on my knees, chin resting on my palms, and feeling . . . what? Peaceful and quiet, I think, aware of myself as alone in a wide noisy world yet enjoying my distance from it, if also feeling the creeping approach of loneliness. The boundary between solitude and loneliness is permeable and unstable, after all. I remember that, after a while, I got up off the steps and went back to the game. I remember that I found the teacher playing in the infield, sweat trickling down her temple, and when she glanced at me, her expression was somewhere between annoyed and indifferent. I already knew that look from my too-busy mother, who had five children under eleven to worry about, and I was by this time—at eight—girded against it.
Seventy years later, I still recall this moment, although without the shame I once associated with it—my peculiarities, my sullenness—as being when my status as a loner and a pursuer of solitude was cemented. Yet I and those friends my age who admit to suffering from loneliness do everything that remains within our power (not being able to bring the dead back to life or get rid of their own Parkinson’s, arthritis, congestive heart failure) to relieve or dispel loneliness. I tell myself that everybody feels this emotion. It is some help but not much, and my inability to find the right or true source or cause of my loneliness is as painful as the loneliness itself.
When I was thirty-six, I left my lowly university-lecturer job in a small city to marry a cattle rancher whose land was in a sparsely populated and remote part of southwest Saskatchewan where, in time, I came to understand that I would never be fully accepted. Thirty-three years later, a widow dreaming of a new life (or to recreate my original one), I moved to Calgary to be near my grandchildren. Otherwise, I knew virtually no one there, and years later, my family gone to Ontario, I still don’t have extensive or deep social connections. Ever since I left that remote Prairie home and chose the city, I have had the sense that my “real life,” the place where I belong and where there is no loneliness, is somewhere else out there in the world, although I can’t name or find it.
I’m eighty now and I live alone, a situation so common that you might even say loneliness goes hand in hand with being old, that the old are experts in loneliness. There is, however, a stigma attached to being lonely—being lonely must be your own fault because you’re an inferior person—while, if you claim to enjoy solitude, you are seen as not of the typical run of humanity and are admired, even while being looked at skeptically, because in our society, preferring to be alone isn’t seen as “normal” or well adjusted. Also, there is the tired disclaimer that you can be lonely while among people—and even in marriage—a cliché that, while true, only irritates those who are truly, physically alone in the world, such as orphans or the old whose family and friends are all too debilitated to connect with others or are dead.
We also all know, or at some juncture in our lives discover, that loneliness in North America is pervasive and thought to be caused by the cult of the individual, the nuclear family, the rise of narcissism, globalization, and late-stage capitalism. As an old person, I live in the midst of a community of loneliness—admittedly a contradiction in terms: How do the lonely make a community and remain lonely? But, somehow, we manage it. The COVID-19 requirements of physical distancing and isolation have resulted in the sad, even alarming fact that loneliness is now more widespread through our society than it’s ever been.
It is only when, having some long, heightened personal experience with loneliness, you decide to write an essay on this newly (again) trendy subject that you discover what a voluminous literature there is about it, from modern studies done by government departments to personal essays, from sixteenth-century Michel de Montaigne’s “On Solitude” to psychiatrist Anthony Storr’s 1988 Solitude: A Return to the Self. Both conclude that solitude is good while loneliness is bad and that loneliness is a complex emotion, state, condition. Put the topic in the hands of philosophers and you will soon find it is almost beyond your ability to understand their deep probing of the subject, examining related concepts of grief, sorrow, depression—even homesickness, although in old people, homesickness is usually for the no longer extant home or for a home that, even if one went back and stood in the middle of it, wouldn’t be the right, longed-for home anymore. And that would be loneliness.
I am surprised to find that friends my own age who, before COVID-19, took part in the activities of a number of organizations and so were out of their homes and with congenial people often—friends who never spent three to five days completely alone, the phone not even ringing unless it was the cursed telephone marketers—people who never used to go three to five days with no one knocking on the door and who didn’t have to go to the grocery store or post office or even to the doctor just to have a human conversation, claim still to be lonely. How can this be?
We look back through our lives, thinking that loneliness didn’t strike us at all when we were young, except—oh, yes—in certain rare, specific situations: mom in the hospital, siblings gone somewhere without you, being sent off to the relatives while your parents holidayed, starting a new school, that kind of thing. Or, later, in adulthood: betrayal, divorce, living alone, changing cities, children leaving home, without the money to do whatever it is you want to do, dreaming of some life you can never have. Now, in old age, though, we are baffled by our loneliness no matter what we do to alleviate it; we resent it and start searching through the past to try to discover how we have come to this.
In a 2013 essay for The New Republic called “The Lethality of Loneliness,” Judith Shulevitz writes, “Loneliness is made as well as given, and at a very early age. Deprive us of the attention of a loving, reliable parent, and, if nothing happens to make up for that lack, we’ll tend toward loneliness for the rest of our lives. Not only that, but our loneliness will probably make us moody, self-doubting, angry, pessimistic, shy, and hyper-sensitive to criticism. Recently, it has become clear that some of these problems reflect how our brains are shaped from our first moments of life.”
When I read this, I froze, so accurate a description it was of the tendencies that I fight in order to live a more “normal” life, of how I have gradually, over the many years of my adulthood, come to see myself as having been. That is, in order to not die of self-imposed loneliness. And, still, before COVID-19, I would catch myself dodging out of an event as soon as it ended, right when everybody else was gathering to network, bond, cement alliances, gossip, chat, and just have a little fun for half an hour before, satisfied, they would turn toward home. Or else I would refuse a social invitation because it intimidated me too much, even though everybody else would have a good time, and I probably would have too, if I could have just mustered the courage to initiate conversations or if I hadn’t thought that the slightest, most fleeting expression meant the person I was talking to was bored by me or had taken a dislike to me. That I had, once again, said something immeasurably stupid or offensive or had made an enemy when I was trying to make a friend. Rather than suffer through that again, I would tell myself, I would rather be alone. Even though COVID-19 has greatly exacerbated loneliness, I doubt, when it’s over and I get used to going out again, I’ll feel any different.
Not all the roots of loneliness grow from childhood. When I first became aware of myself as old, and when both of my parents, two of my four sisters, and my husband had died (the other two sisters, as well as my son and his family, live in other provinces, too far from me to visit casually even without COVID-19), leaving me pretty much permanently alone—in the physical sense, at the very least—I began to feel like the last member of my tribe left on earth. For the first time, I understood, in the deepest part of my being, what the true loneliness of orphans and of those who define themselves or are defined by society as “other,” as not belonging, really is. I began to understand why the elderly are too often lonely people. But this is a kind of loneliness that is attached to being in the flesh, to once having been firmly related to others, to once having been a member of a large family or community. The soul remains connected to the dead, as if they were all still alive, but the body is bereft, and the mind rests in a kind of melancholy, awed confusion, and dismay. More than once, I have heard old people say, in a puzzled, sad way, something like, “I have outlived my life.” I have said it myself. How can it be that I remain alive and on earth when the significant people of the life I have lived are now only ghosts? I have overstayed my life; my still being alive is a mistake; surely, I was meant to go when they did.
When I consider my own loneliness, now, in my old age, as I have done both on purpose and inadvertently, I count my blessings: a nice home; enough money to pay my bills; pretty good health for my age; a few good old friends in other provinces I can talk to on the phone; a few new friends with whom, before the virus and its isolation, I used to visit and with whom I went to movies and plays; a brain that, though not as good as it once was, is still working well enough. This cures me for the moment, COVID-19 or not, but let my guard down and there it is again, like a mangy grey coyote that shadows me everywhere and that lay, forgotten by me, at my feet under the table when I was lunching with a friend, my loneliness problem solved until the moment the door latch clicked behind her and that coyote crawled out and rubbed against my leg once more. And I am baffled by this too, and thoroughly annoyed with myself because I knew—I know—better, if only I could remember what I know.
I was lonely after my husband died, in 2007, because I had no “significant other” reading the newspaper in the other room. But, as I adjusted to my single state, stifling that yearning, I turned to philosophers for instruction on the good life, the happy life, and in reading them, I suddenly remembered a teaching from many years ago, when I was wandering alone on the prairie one day, immensely sad, full of self-pity, and trying to understand where my dismal feelings came from.
There really was no one thing that I could pinpoint: I was sad because I was alive and did not have every single thing I had ever wanted, did not even know all the things I wanted, and I believe now that it was the latter that made me saddest. I was alive and I was a human being and wanting is the condition of the human. Words appeared in my head, or perhaps it was what I have called the “voiceless voice” that spoke to me. This too is illusion, it said, and at once, it straightened my head right around. Wisdom may sometimes come in such a flash, but I have learned you must stick with it or it will leave you as clueless as you were before it lit.
Loneliness isn’t a social construct in itself, although social conditions can certainly create it: the loneliness of the prisoner, the loneliness of those doomed to live a life they think is not the one they would have chosen for themselves, the loneliness of the elderly caused by ageism. To suffer from loneliness is part of the human condition and must always have existed.
But it hasn’t always been named as such. William Shakespeare, our greatest expert on everything human, left behind no indelible quotes about loneliness, as he did for just about every other human experience, despite being credited with coining the term “lonely.” We, as readers, have never looked to him as someone who wrote about the subject. Was this because, for him, loneliness was fully tied to the condition of being unhappily in love? Or was it about the supposed loneliness of the dead? Nonetheless, Shakespeare’s tragic heroes certainly suffered from what we would today simply call loneliness. King Lear, Hamlet, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, and Titus Andronicus, in their extremities of rage, grief, and humiliation, were also lonely people.
Thomas Dumm, in Loneliness as a Way of Life, writes that “the very texture of modern life is inflected by loneliness.” Thinking of the West, at least, who could disagree? Although Dumm, a professor of political science, goes on to write that loneliness permeates our entire experience of living and that it is also political because of the way it helps us understand and shape not just the meaning of our individuality but also how we use power and justice in the world. It is so ubiquitous an experience that, in January 2018, in response to a UK report finding that about 9 million people (out of 67 million surveyed) reported themselves as lonely and the fact that loneliness can be responsible for a decline in health, the British government appointed a so-called minister of loneliness. In late 2018, the government began serious work on a loneliness strategy, with the overarching department introducing a number of programs it believed would help alleviate the condition. (Currently, the “minister of loneliness” position no longer exists, though loneliness is the purview of the same department.) This February, alarmed by the increase in suicides it linked to the increased isolation of COVID-19, the Japanese government also appointed a minister to oversee loneliness.
In Canada, governments are starting to pay attention to the problem and devise ways of alleviating it where they find it: chiefly, but not exclusively, among senior citizens. A good thing, because two Angus Reid Institute studies show that, in 2019, 55 percent of the population identified as having a good social life, but in 2020, the figure had dropped to 33 percent. The percentage of those reporting as not suffering from either loneliness or social isolation had dropped from 22 percent to 12 percent. But those suffering from both social isolation and loneliness (separated by the researchers, with sufferers of both referred to as “The Desolate”) had increased from 23 percent to 33 percent. In 2020, one-third of our population was “desolate” from isolation and loneliness.
As if the simple continual longing for company isn’t devastating enough, researchers have demonstrated that social isolation results in a weaker immune system, making the lonely more vulnerable to disease. A 2010 review of 148 studies on the health effects of social isolation found that they exceeded the health risks associated with obesity, inactivity, heavy drinking, air pollution, and smoking.
I have to question what agencies and programs designed to alleviate loneliness and instill a sense of community can do for the suffering. Besides offering transportation for people with disabilities and elderly people and language classes for non-English speakers, they can provide funding and leadership to create clubs and organizations designed especially for those groups defined as lonely. In some cases, all this may help quite a few people. But, in most of us, the fundamental condition will remain, even if at a diminished level, and for most of us, it ebbs and flows throughout our lives.
“We are all lonely, even when amid crowds and in committed relationships,” writes psychoanalyst James Hollis in Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up. “When we are alone, we are still with someone; we are with ourselves. The question is how are we with ourselves?” Loneliness opens us up to self-questioning, sometimes to the obsessive mental repetition of past experiences and accompanying emotions, often to overpowering, helpless contrition for past deeds and words, to heightened mourning over our many losses, and to hopelessness. When you’re alone, there is little to distract you from your thoughts, and if you have no one to talk to, your ideas about who you are and who you have been can ramp themselves up until rational perspective departs. Such suffering over your life can lead to despair. But Hollis writes that, if you have respect for yourself and if you pay attention to your dreams and “other such phenomena,” you may find help with your loneliness from a deeper place within yourself. This is a psychoanalytic solution, deeply learned and intensely felt, and one that most people would be grateful for (and it will probably be as far as most of us get), but I think that, as helpful as such communing with the deeper self undeniably is, this response is still not quite the full answer to the problem of loneliness. It shouldn’t be forgotten that we are all afraid, even the greatest heroes and heroines among us. My own feeling is that perhaps the empty spot that pains us so deeply is, as I have written, yearning for what we have lost—our mother, spouse, child, original home, the way of life we left behind. “Our loneliness is always deepest in those moments when we face the terror of nothing,” writes Dumm in Loneliness as a Way of Life. “But nothing rarely appears as itself; instead, it takes on many guises, most of which connect back to the ultimate nothing, death, or non-existence, that blank page.”
And how do we deal with that? I think of myself as a person with a long history of being stifled by my own fears, and now, in old age, I think of the foolish ones: to drive in heavy traffic, to visit places where I know no one, to go out at night. I have wondered about them, berated myself over them, tried to overcome them, but I think I see now that, although there is much out there for old people to be afraid of, I suspect my fears are, in the end, related to my approaching nothingness—“that blank page.”
One of the things that most puzzled me during the more than thirty years I spent with my husband in what was for me rural solitude—partly because I didn’t fit into rural society and partly because I chose the work of learning to be a writer, which further isolated me—was that, even as I was often brought to an absolute physical halt by the natural beauty I was seeing, I was at the same time stricken painfully in the heart by the sight. Looking closer, I identified it as yearning, and then, in the end, I gave it the name of loneliness.
If I were more religious than I am, I might say that the feeling was yearning for the place we came from before we were born. But I don’t quite believe that, although I would like to. Perhaps, instead, it is about the human search for perfection, the perfection we find only in great works of art and out in the landscape. I think that we yearn for perfect peace, which doesn’t mean being in perfect solitude, or comatose, or brain dead, but for peace in the heart—a peaceful heart in the midst of the multitudes, tumult, chaos, violence, sorrow, and the beauty of everyday life. We can never have that peace, except in the work of art or the sunset, but instead, we have intimations of it, and that is why we feel sadness.
Wisdom suggests that we learn to focus on the now, forget the past, and stop worrying about the future. Only then do we erase loneliness.
I have at times forgotten all about loneliness and, if asked, would have offered denial. My goodness, it’s hard to be lonely in the middle of sex: the act occupies you rather fully, at least for a few minutes. And I wasn’t lonely giving birth, although I was frightened, in pain, and perhaps indignant that this was bloody well asking too much of me. Or when I held my dearest preschooler tightly in my arms. Moments, flashes, the occasional long afternoon in the countryside, when dreaming, when lost in my work, in the “zone” athletes talk about, when struggling to understand an idea, whenever I am focused on something. Nor was I lonely when I was walking on the prairie alone and my consciousness moved out beyond its normal limits and allowed me a larger sense of the world.
It took nearly eighty years of living through happy things and sad things and torments of every kind that beset the human before I began to see how right the philosophers were: we are creatures of desire, creatures of the imagination, and to subdue these natural and vital processes takes a lifetime of repeated experience and the work that follows. No wonder wisdom suggests that we learn to focus on the now, forget the past, and stop worrying about the future. Only then does the sorrow vanish, only then do we erase loneliness. But, I think, at what great cost to the exploration of the richness of life and to individual human possibilities.
Still, sometimes I wonder how my life would have changed if, that day beside the school, my young teacher had come looking for me and, speaking to me encouragingly, had brought me to the others and ensured that I found a place in the game. Maybe I was waiting for her to do that, although I remember soon realizing that nobody would, one of the first revelations of my life. I was all alone, by my own not-exactly-choosing, since I wanted to be with the other kids but also wanted something else. Perhaps my need for solitude, despite its sometime companion loneliness, had been instilled in my soul long before I entered school, maybe at conception, and it would be up to me, as I grew, to find a balance where I could.
A version of this essay appears in This Strange Visible Air: Essays on Aging and the Writing Life (Freehand Books), which is out in September.