• Sun. Dec 11th, 2022

Millions of us were living with this curse before the pandemic. How can we break it?

Nov 21, 2020

Recently I watched a woodpecker hunt for insects along a tree trunk outside my window. The wind tossed the boughs, mostly swept clean except for a few clinging yellowed leaves, as the sun faded, barely clearing the low-slung roofline of the apartments across the street.
I was sitting at my desk, finishing another day. This woodpecker hopped up and down the trunk for several minutes, hammering its red-capped head into the wood, prospecting for dinner.
The scene was so delightful and mesmerising that I wanted to holler to someone in the next room, “Hey, come see this!” I live alone, though. I considered snapping a photo and posting it online, but distance would have transformed bird to blotch and, really, who cares about my avian neighbours? The charm would not have translated. Perhaps I would remember to mention it when I next spoke with my parents, or even a friend. But that autumn evening it seemed most likely the small, golden moment would, like much of my life, go unshared.
When you’re lonely, lockdown doesn’t end. Rather horribly, the isolation the pandemic has imposed this year is not that different from my normal life. I live alone, I work alone, I’m hundreds of miles from my family. There’s no real difference between not making plans (because of a virus) and not having plans (because last-minute cancellation is now socially acceptable). All of which feels shameful — these admissions leave me frantic to declare that I am hilarious, smart and quite fun to have a drink with.
© Annabel Wright
The world emerged by degrees from lockdown over the summer. Now a fresh surge of infections is leading to new restrictions in Europe and some US states. I only hope there is less wailing than in March, when so many reacted as if sentenced to some medieval interdict. The grieving didn’t lack my sympathy, nor did the frightened patients in hospital beds fighting for air or the newly unemployed. Even the plight of takeaway addicts suddenly forced to learn how to fry an egg was weirdly touching.
No, I reserved my fury for commentators who bloviated that this would lead to some new dawn of connection and community, because I knew it wasn’t true. I was also angered by the individuals — in print, on air and in my social circle — who gulped down a few weeks or months of loneliness only to pronounce it unbearable. As if I hadn’t been here all along, bearing it.
Lonely as a cloud? I am as lonely as an iceberg, an egg, a half carafe of wine. I am lonely as the body is hungry three times a day, hollowed again and again by an ache that does not ease except with the sustenance of connection. The feeling differs from the peace of solitude, which many enjoy, including me at times. Instead, it is a gnawing sadness. Even before the pandemic, a combination of circumstance and choice left me with fewer close ties than I wanted. Every day I forage for connection, and some days I go hungry.
I was angered by those who gulped down a few months of loneliness only to pronounce it unbearable. As if I hadn’t been here all along, bearing it
I am not, of course, alone in my loneliness. A 2018 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than a fifth of US and UK adults, and 9 per cent of Japanese adults, said they always or often felt lonely. Experts describe a panoply of negative consequences: deteriorating health, diminished productivity, even dangerous political fallout as the disconnected turn to extremist politics for meaning and belonging.
Loneliness is our modern curse, and yet who admits to the affliction? For all the news stories about the pervasiveness of loneliness, rarely is anyone identified by name. The shame of loneliness feels like the shame of hunger, of want, of admitting you cannot feed yourself. This is not an epidemic, but a famine.
How did it get this bad, for me and for all of us? All the lonely people; where do they all come from? First, ditch the stereotype of the lonely pensioner. The 2018 study found that across the three countries more than half the adults who reported loneliness were younger than 50. They were more likely to be poor and uncoupled. They also, importantly, were struggling with changed circumstances, like recent job loss or a new living situation. They weren’t lonely because they had horrible personalities.
Certain questions about my loneliness are easy to answer. I have been the archetypal rootless professional. I moved to Chicago from Delaware when I was 18 and have lost track of my changes of address since then. This has resulted in interesting work and a satisfying number of adventures, while that most humble of technologies, the telephone, has kept me anchored to home. Still, there are limits.
My family started a new tradition of digital Sunday dinners during the pandemic, but the 13 hours I drove cross-country to see my parents in August reminded me that geography matters.
Location matters for work too. I started working from home in January when I joined the Financial Times, leaving the Chicago newsroom where I counted several journalists as close friends. No amount of group texting can replace the closeness that comes from seeing the same people every day, from gossiping with a confidante or going out for “just one drink” that turns into a hazy journey home three hours later. I tell people that I hated remote working two months before everyone else, and they laugh, because I am smiling. I am not joking. Loneliness feels shameful, but often it is simply structural. I was spending less time with people, full stop.
So that’s work and family. What about friendship? A delicate and confusing question, because an observer might laugh at this idea that I feel lonely. From the outside, I look like way too much of a social butterfly to ever ache for companionship. I am the person always proposing a drink, a show, a festival, brunch. My apartment is the place where people gather, or at least did before the pandemic. I throw parties and cook dinners, and I love every minute of it.
The value of friendship has been and remains unequivocal for me. But the place I turn for a lot of my emotional nourishment is the same place where many are inclined to cut corners. This corner-cutting is necessary too, because there are only 24 hours in a day and, with an increasing share devoured by work, less time remains for family, meaningful hobbies or friendship.
To make matters worse, friendship often falls outside the routine of daily adult life. People plough through their 40-and-counting-hour workweeks because employers demand it. They see their spouses and children because they live with them. (Not that family life wholly inoculates. Isolation among one’s intimates is a special hell, and the Kaiser study says 29 per cent are living in it.) But friendship is scheduled, and the cheapness of friendship is made plain when you consider how easily and breezily plans fall away.
Countless stories have been written in the past few years outlining how to cancel plans without seeming rude or extolling the joys of ditching in favour of Netflix. When the pandemic hit, wags on Twitter joked that they missed having plans to cancel. Of course, another perennial trend story is why it’s so hard to make friends as an adult. The collective obliviousness is remarkable.
It’s hard to say at this point that there’s a single person who knows the minutiae of my life
I get it. I do. I have, at times, committed the same offence. It looks silly, or maybe just petty, to attach so much significance to keeping plans. But really this is about the allocation of a scarce resource, time. All relationships require time and presence, and no amount of Facebook status updates can substitute for showing up. Or even just answering your phone for a chat not scheduled a week in advance.
There’s the friend I talk to on Saturday mornings, trading stories about our week, and the one I call when I melt down at work, and the one I talked to for hours recently as we looped around a Chicago park. Those interactions are fun and meaningful. It all helps. It’s just not enough. I’m not sure what “enough” is.
Loneliness is not about objective isolation, but the perception of it. The late neuroscientist John Cacioppo, known for his groundbreaking work on loneliness, said in a 2016 interview that “disconnection is differentially painful. Some people it hardly bothers at all, some people it disturbs so much as to become a pathology.” For me, the care of others can feel like starlight: visible, yet too far away for warmth.
A wide circle of acquaintances, which I have, cannot deliver a person from loneliness. The pandemic showed me that for most people, I am a “nice to have”, not a necessary part of their emotional infrastructure. We retrenched in March, turned inward, turned to those who live in our homes and, like I said, I live alone.
Though I am friendly with many — I talk to neighbours, to fellow parishioners at church, to all kinds of strangers — it’s hard to say at this point that there’s a single person who knows the minutiae of my life. Novelist Ann Patchett wrote in 2003 that real intimacy was “not the person who calls to say, ‘I’m having an affair’; it’s the friend who calls to say, ‘Why do I have four jars of pickles in my refrigerator?’” The person who listens to your story about watching a woodpecker.
Contemporary US society tries to solve that problem with marriage. A boyfriend or a husband — why don’t I have one of those? I’m financially stable and have my own teeth. (Mostly.) Alas, I have yet to find someone I want to marry, who also wants to marry me, which saddens me. The sexist response is that I should have secured a wedding ring on any terms — a response I would happily burn in an oven right alongside the Cookies of Traditional Femininity.
Loneliness is terrible, but I’d rather be alone than compromise on the basics: someone I fancy, whose company I enjoy, who does housework and doesn’t assume his career comes first. Two decades of romantic experience have made me faster at figuring out who isn’t a match for me. (Willing to date a woman 15 years younger but not even two years older? You and I shall never meet.) That’s useful, in theory, but translates into more time alone. So be it.
But a better question than “Why isn’t she married?” is “Why is marriage the only model for long-term, caring, adult relationships?” Writers Jessa Crispin and Briallen Hopper have explored this, unearthing alternative models from the past. In the late-19th and early-20th century, women in New England lived together in partnerships in a practice nicknamed “Boston marriage”.
In the medieval Low Countries, women known as beguines lived together in separate sections of the city. They could work, keep their own money and live without men, but they were not nuns. They did not take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and they did not always stay in the beguinage for a lifetime. We don’t need to reconstruct this on a grand scale, but a lonely world would be better served if there were more models and more visibility for cohabitation between non-romantic partners.
Isolation that preceded the pandemic cannot be lifted with the ease of a stay-at-home order. But the pandemic, in its obvious externality, usefully illustrates how loneliness so often arises from conditions divorced from our personal worth. I may endure the consequences of living in a society that values working 10 hours a day and fetishises marriage at the expense of all other relationships, but just because it’s my problem doesn’t mean it’s my fault. It doesn’t have anything to do with me at all.
Suddenly, the possible solutions to the famine look different. Maybe we ask more of ourselves and show up when we say we will. Maybe we ask more of our employers, staking a claim to our time. Maybe we ask less of our spouses and no longer expect one relationship to bear the weight of our entire emotional lives.
Maybe if loneliness is not my fault, then I don’t need to feel so ashamed. Maybe none of us do.
Claire Bushey is the FT’s Chicago correspondent
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