“Hell is other people” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in 1944, thereby assuring his place among the ranks of Legendary Curmudgeons. Perhaps I’ll be joining him, because I sometimes find that, paradoxically, loneliness is other people.
Like many of us, I experienced loneliness most intensely as an adolescent. I suppose this is unsurprising; adolescence is a period when we are separating ourselves from our parents, and yet also experiencing increasing discrepancies between ourselves and that arbitrary cohort of peers, selected by the blunt instrument of birth year, with whom we have been thrust together for six or even thirteen years of education. It’s also a time when popular culture is bombarding us with the suggestion that the universal and invincible solution to loneliness is romantic love. (I fell for this particular line completely, trying to patch up the loneliness and alienation I experienced from the age of 12 or 13 with a series of long-lasting, intense romantic relationships that acted as my only human anchor-point in a sea of general lostness.)
I’m grateful every day to have escaped the morass of my own rather extended adolescence, but adulthood (why do I always want to put that word in quotes?) brings its own difficulties as far as loneliness is concerned. It’s culturally expected – almost a duty, it sometimes seems – that you should be lonely if you’re not in a relationship, or have few close friends. [This is what makes a book like Solitude (yesterday's sunday best) so refreshing, defending as it does the merits of solitude and pointing out that the ability to be contentedly alone is an important component of maturity.] However, the converse expectation is also applied: if you’re in a relationship and have lots of friends, being lonely is inexplicable, possibly aberrant – almost a kind of disloyalty.
It’s not something one is supposed to admit to, but I often feel lonely in the company of groups of people. Some of this is probably a side effect of being an introvert; even enjoyable social interaction can be a bit draining, and if I’m tired, I can’t always summon the vim to participate fully. However, some of it is about not fitting in, which remains a lonely feeling even now. My problem – which is certainly not unique to me – is that it’s hard to find groups of people where all of me is both acknowledged and acceptable. My computer-geek side, with its scientific curiosity and genuine enthusiasm for programming, doesn’t really fit into either the “literary” world or my day-to-day small town life; at best, it’s a kind of zany quirk that’s occasionally useful for whimsical biographical entries and fixing broken computers. Outside of the literary world, the fact that I write poems seems to be almost an embarrassment – certainly something that most people aren’t comfortable talking about – and I generally stay off the subject. (And here was me thinking that “I’m a computer scientist” was the biggest conversation-killer at parties…)
I think the worst kind of loneliness, though, is the loneliness brought about by its supposed antidote, romantic love. The ferocious isolation of lying next to someone in a dark bedroom, in mutual frosty silence, is soul-destroying precisely because it engenders loneliness while simultaneously and starkly revealing love’s failure as a perfect antidote for it. I always think of that loneliness when I hear U2′s evocative lines There is a silence that comes to a house / where no-one can sleep. [Aside: how COULD they follow that up with the utterly unforgiveable I guess it's the price of love; / I know it's not cheap"? Argh!]. Perhaps the last word should go to Philip Larkin, who captures this most intimate loneliness beautifully in his poem “Talking In Bed” (which I copied out into my notebook when I was 15 or 16, already sensing some of its dark veracity.) You can read it here.