Sandra Bullock in the movie ‘Gravity’.
Sandra Bullock in the movie ‘Gravity’.

One theory about loneliness

There is an epidemic of loneliness across the world. But then loneliness is not always a scarcity of humans; it is often a rebukeof the lonely

Do the lonely deserve compassion? It is hard to argue with this. But then most people are lonely because they too have spurned, they have rejected those who wished to be with them. Loneliness is not always a state of being rejected, it is also a consequence of a person deeming isolation superior to the slim pickings of life. Somewhere in this world there is a lonely person who is so because you are not worth her time. Even the old are lonely not because they have no company but because the company that is available to them, outside their family, is poor; the world has matched them by their caste, age, and they are stranded with acquaintances with whom they would never have dined in another time. Loneliness is not a scarcity of humans, but a rebuke—of the lonely.

A high bar for a mate is not the only cause for loneliness. There is the loneliness of small-town people in the metros, who wish to reject their useless provincial acquaintances and hit it off with the posh but they are rejected for being “downmarket" or vernacular. People who are able to enjoy the company of their own original class even as they move up in life are lucky, or at least lucky in the companionship department. There is also the loneliness that comes from isolation by your own tribe for your views and actions. This is why most people appear to have agreeable views. The phenomenon also explains why fierce intellectual independence requires loneliness. Loneliness is the f***you money of art. If you have no more friends to lose you can say anything you want.

Such a state of existence is different from the loneliness of a job, as in the case of scientific researchers, mathematicians and artists. Sustained intellectual work is possible only for those who have the ability or are trained in spending many hours a day in isolation, but such people can still be highly convivial, filing their lives with people and enjoying them without erecting a high bar for friendships. In fact, contrary to their reputation, most scientists and artists have a vast network of friends in their own fields because they need their village to get ahead. But intellectual independence is another matter. Can one be the flâneur and the heretic at the same time?

You may think loneliness is a common feature, if not the very story, in films and novels. Actually it is not a feature. Loneliness is a plot device. When I was a boy growing up in Chennai, where family is the unit of life, and I started watching Hollywood films, I noticed that Rambo did not have a family. And Arnold Schwarzenegger was mostly alone in many of his movies. I was certain that most white people did not have families. It occurred to me that even Jesus Christ, who I had thought was a white man, was mostly lonely. In many novels, too, you will find the protagonist living alone. This is a result of decluttering, which writers invented long before Marie Kondo influenced even Cancerian women to throw away stuff. One of the most difficult things to achieve while writing fiction are the unremarkable interactions between characters. It is tough but not central to what novelists wish to say. For this reason it annoys most storytellers. So they make the protagonist lonely. That reduces the problem of character interactions. The same trick of decluttering is possibly the reason why in the film Gravity, the character played by Sandra Bullock reveals that she had lost her little daughter in an accident. That way she is not yet another childless female lead, and the director does not have to worry about that inevitable but tired arc where Bullock has to talk emotional stuff from space to her girl on earth.

Storytellers have also romanticized loneliness as a sign of intelligence or strength. As a consumer of this myth in my adolescence and early 20s, I never saw my loneliness as a problem that I needed to resolve. All around me people rated companionship above many things like loyalty, decency and even fairness. But I was proud to be alone.

As a result, from age 20-30 I was known by about 25 people, in my calculation. In that time I understood that sorrow is often a misunderstanding of boredom. I used to get confused by people who had many friends, who were always out drinking, who told me they were lonely. How could beautiful women in the company of so many layers of friendship be lonely? Only later would I understand what everybody already knew—that we need to belong to someone, and own (the same person, preferably). Or we will have to prepare for loneliness. But then couples, too, feel lonely. They feel lonely together, as couples. Here too they are not spurned, rather they have spurned the couples who wish to be with them.

So do the lonely deserve sympathy?

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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