Mental Health Awareness Week: All the Lonely People

  • Monday 9th May 2022

Today my sister, Louise, and I, picked our way through the contents of our late-mother’s house, preparing it for sale to a new owner. It was tough. All objects, imbued with personal history, even the most mundane like kitchen utensils and spectacles, seemed to sting. Some pierced more deeply, like photographs, or items she had proudly kept from our childhood, things we had made for her with our small hands, when she was the centre of our little universe. What struck me as we both wandered round the now-hollow spaces of her home was that the, ostensibly shared, grief and loss, was in fact deeply personal and different. Neither she nor I would ever really understand what our mother meant to the other. While we shared the same sun, we had different orbits with unique and different perspectives and experiences. No matter how much of the same history she and I have shared, neither of us truly knows what the other has experienced. Although this must have, I suppose, been true all along, it is still sobering to consider that despite everything we’ll eventually die never having never really known each other.

Of all emotions, loneliness is, perhaps, the most existential. It reminds us of our separateness and distinctness from everything. It can feel like an unwelcome visitor, the sound of the bailiff knocking to collect a debt we have been accruing since the beginning, and which we are quick to forget. Like Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, in the end, we are all of us, alone. Such is our fate.

And yet, surrounded by people, animals, plants, objects, digital data and connections, it’s impossible to get away. A therapist will frequently hear how lonely a person is in their relationship with their spouse, or at school, or in their workplace, their family. Where once they belonged, they are now outsiders and vulnerable. Loneliness is the emotion that sets us apart in stark relief. It is a suffering that deepens and humbles us and thus, paradoxically, generates in us an affinity and yearning for meaningful connection to others. It is, we might say, a confirmation of our sentient intelligence.

While loneliness is the pain of intimacy with ourselves, when harnessed creatively it becomes the gift of solitude. We can then begin to get inventive with the seemingly unbridgeable chasms between us. We can begin to enjoy the creative efforts of other lonely people reaching out to us across the abyss with their art, poetry, films, songs, novels, humour, and so on. While our death remains uniquely ours, there are a series of moments between now and then in which possibilities exists and magic can happen, and this surely is in no small part thanks to our encounter with loneliness. At least we’re all lonely together!

Written by Neil Gibson Clinical Coordinator