As detrimental to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Increasing the risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke. And the likelihood of developing dementia. That’s how feeling alone, reportedly, effects us. And it’s spreading amongst us, more than nine million people – a fifth of the UK population – privately admit they are “always or often lonely”.
Rachel Reeves, Leeds West MP
Taking this intensely personal condition and make it political is the laudable aim of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. In remembrance of the murdered politician, her former colleagues, like Rachel Reeves, and family members launched the campaign with a big fanfare this week. Working with 13 charities, like Age UK and Action for Children, it will campaign to raise awareness of the lonely amongst us, offering ways to help. With the message ‘Start a Conversation’, the Commission wants us to talk to people – a neighbour, an old friend, the people we meet in our day.
Having a chat sounds simple but of course, if it was, then there would be no alarming issue. Reporting loneliness as an ‘epidemic’ has been swirling around the media for a little while now – and now Britain, is the worst, in Europe. Studies examining it say technology, and fragmented families are the likely causes. A world, supported by economic systems that encourage individualism, and that appears increasingly fearful, are probably not helping much either. Indeed so clever are we at creating homes of plentifulness and security, we’ve seemingly coerced ourselves into a lonely corner. And now we are finding that no amount of goods, or ‘likes’, or alarms compensate for genuine human interaction. And it’s really not all about the elderly. A hugely worrying 86% of millennials reported feeling lonely and depressed in a 2011 study. A study in 2014 found 18-24-year-olds were four times as likely to feel lonely all the time as those aged 70 and above;
Jouelzy, style blogger (28 yrs old)
How technology is affecting us all is being researched every which way. Sherry Turkle whilst promoting her recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, said, “People tell me they wish Siri (the iPhone companion) were their best friend. I was stunned. You can’t make this stuff up.” (https://www.theguardian.com/)
And we don’t have to look far to see how isolated individuals can affect us all. The school shooters, particularly seen in the US, have been warning us for some time.
There may be cause for social alarm then but that doesn’t mean we should always fear aloneness. There’s solace out there, in the form of charitable organizations and community projects (see below). And artistically, there is most definitely a place for solitude. “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”said Ernst Hemingway. The literary world would likely be a lot less interesting if it did not contain those prepared for periods of (intense) isolation;
“One of the reasons many writers have the urge to communicate to begin with is that they’ve experienced loneliness earlier in life and writing seems like a means to overcome it, to connect with others. A solitude imposed in youth becomes chosen in adulthood. What was a source of shame becomes a condition of work. You remove yourself from the world in order to get closer to it.” Adam Haslett
And as art often eats itself, so the isolated, the solitary and the lonely have become a feature of many creative works. And the work produced is a good reminder to us all; that feeling lonely is a common emotion we all feel at some point in our lives. And to match our many insular moods the theme been explored and represented in many ways;
From the resourceful; Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1791), probably one of the most famous literary characters in history – shipwrecked on an Pacific island this is Crusoe’s story of survival and then transformation. In a groundbreaking work from Jean Pierre Jeunet, loneliness is warm and full of life in Amélie (2001), as a shy waitress tries her best to break free of her isolation by helping other people. And Wings of Desire (1987) depicts an angel falling in love with a stranger in Berlin in a profound love story, wonderfully directed by Wim Wenders.
To the deranged; When isolation leads to desperation has been powerfully represented on screen. Repulsion (1965) – Roman Polanski’s first English language film starring Catherine Deneuve. A young woman’s descent into madness after being left alone in her sister’s apartment is uncomfortable viewing. As is Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky’s celebrated Russian sci-fi drama; a complex and philosophically frightening study of confinement and alienation. And Taxi Driver (1976) – arguably cinema’s definitive portrayal of a loner, Martin Scorsese’s brooding meditation on solitude and it’s road to terrifying violence.
The “classic” outsiders; less volatile characters here, but misfits all the same. Personified by Meursault, in Camus’ L’Etranger, the anti-hero who will not lie, and so becomes utterly trapped in his isolation. Kafka’s creation of a man turned giant cockroach in Metamorphosis, makes us question the meaning of love and our familiar interactions, as does Mary Shelley’s monster creation, Frankenstein. Whilst Leonardo Di Caprio shows up in 2 roles as desperate men indulging in sleazy behaviour to hide their loneliness; as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street and Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. For a recent new look at the outsider try Her (2013). Directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely man who begins a relationship with a computer based Operating System, named Samantha. Set in 2025, this has much to say on our relationships both now and in the future.
Other creators use loneliness to observe the loneliness of others:
Edward Hopper was concerned with the alienation of the city, (and how lights emphasised this), where humans surrounded by millions of humans can feel acutely alone. He use of glass further signfied the distance between the sitters and the viewer – like our screens today. This is a theme revisited by Olivia Laing in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. She used her own isolation (after moving to New York) to examine it in a wider artistic context.
And then there’s the intensely introspective;
For youthful introspection (and edge of the mind stuff) see Into the Wild (2007). Sean Penn’s captivating drama of a college graduate turned wanderer, who embarks on a scenic and philosophical trek around North America in pursuit of freedom and happiness, finds aloneness. Whilst Wild Strawberries (1957) features an elderly, sick man walking the last steps of his life, ruefully looking back and feeling the melancholy that isolation brings. Directed by Ingmar Bergman who made introspective meditations on human existence quite like no other .
Which probably leads us to Karl Ove Knausgaard who turned his loneliness as a teenager growing up in 190s Norway into, My Struggle, a best-selling series of six fictional autobiographies beginning with A Death in the Family. Knausgaard’s has written that his over-riding motivation has always been to gain some kind of recognition; I Am Someone, Look at Me. A sentiment that, no doubt resonates with all the lonely out there.
Facing up to this ‘epidemic of loneliness’ takes heart and bravery, which is why naming this latest campaign after Jo Cox campaign is so fitting. But capturing these deeply human and emotional truths, in a cultural way is important too. By holding up a mirror to isolation and alienation we can allow those that feel the same to know they are not alone.
Transition Network: Local people coming together to reimagine our towns
Window Wonderland: A social initiative that aims to bring communities together and spread a little joy through creative window displays. Local areas light up permitting residents to see into their neighbours’ homes.
Useful organisations for tackling elderly loneliness: http://www.which.co.uk/
Podcast – The Lonely Hour presented by Julia Bainbridge is a classically trained cook and writer, discusses loneliness with selected guests.
Read: 3 lists with lots more ideas
Featured Image: Automat by Edward Hooper (1927)