Loneliness appears to be one of the human universals, understood by all cultures, generations and genders. Songs, often a great interpreter of human experience, have often turned to loneliness to touch the listener; “Only the lonely – Roy Orbison, Lonely teardrops – Jackie Wilson, So lonely – The Police, I’m so lonesome I could cry – Hank Williams”, and a countless list of songs that name check loneliness in the lyrics.
This cultural affinity with loneliness perhaps comes from the power of the experience. In my personal and professional experience only fear comes close to the power of loneliness as an emotion. All of us want to feel close to someone, feel that we exist positively in the mind of another, that we are cared for, wanted and loved, either by a lover or by friends. This sense of closeness nurtures and sustains us, it is arguably the most vital thing we can have beyond the essentials for our physical existence.
No one would chose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world – Aristotle
We need contact so much that a lack of it will drive us to make some foolish decisions and take some bizarre actions. Much as fear will drive people to irrational avoidance of objects and situations with minimal danger, so loneliness will drive people to engage in behaviours that can seem rash and ridiculous.
It’s this aspect of loneliness that was brought to mind by a TV show called “Bob Servant – Independent” on BBC4 (a rather good Scottish comedy, check it out if you can). The two main characters engage in some quite ridiculous escapades and continually get themselves in trouble. This week the episode opened with one of the main characters taking briefly to a guy he just met. The show ended with him phoning this same guy inviting him on holiday and being agonisingly turned down. This was real bitter sweet comedy, the man was obviously so lonely that all sense of social convention had gone, he had acted quite irrationally because of how lonely he felt.
While the comedy comes laughing at the man, we can all relate to his experience allowing us our laugh at this behaviour. Reflecting on this show, I think such lonely tragic comic characters are becoming more common on TV such as David Brent in the Office (in fact almost any of the cast in The Office). Such characters are fundamentally lonely, this is where the comedy flows from, the cringe factor.
Does this reflect our society? Loneliness appears to be endemic, our communication system designed to allow us to stay connected, allows us to remain faceless and hidden giving free reign to bullies. It also lacks the subtlety and emotional energy of face to face interaction, one could questions whether it genuinely nourishes our needs.
Our cities get larger, flats are piled on top of one another yet we do not know one another beyond a nod at the door. When I worked in London I found the tube curious and sometime hilarious. There we all are, thousands of people in close proximity, and people did anything to avoid acknowledging that other people existed, cocooning themselves in their i-pod bubbles. It’s odd given the power of loneliness that we can all understand that we should opt for such isolation, and create characters where we can laugh at it. Perhaps we should turn again to the songwriters for some guidance.,
Why when there’re so many of us, are there people still alone? – Tracey Chapman