Staring down loneliness when you live alone

Jane Mathews, author of The Art of Living Along and Loving It, shares some of her top tips.

It’s Good Friday morning of the Easter long weekend, and I will be completely alone for all of it. My ex has taken the children away for a ‘family’ trip with his girlfriend and her daughter. Ouch. Part of me is delighted to have four clear days to myself – four whole days – with nothing planned. There is so much that I want and need to do, not least write this book, catch up on emails, clear the decks etc. Most of me relishes the prospect, but I’d be lying to myself – and to you – if I didn’t admit that there is a speck, a mote, of loneliness hanging in the air. It wriggles like a cell in a Petri dish.

Being alone is not the issue per se. It is our minds that create loneliness, and it wears many masks. It can present itself as sadness, apathy, listlessness, rejection, tiredness or depression. It is palpable. It is real. It is not to be dismissed lightly. How can you tackle loneliness head on?

It’s normal. Surrender to it and move on.

Loneliness comes with the territory. Fact. Every person I spoke to while researching this book brought up the topiJaneMathews2-1c of loneliness. Everyone feels it, some more, some less. It is like travelling through hilly countryside and slipping now and again into dark valleys. It is to be expected. Just don’t stay there and pitch your tent. Substitute the word ‘loneliness’ for ‘sorrow’ in this quote from Flying Solo by Carol M. Anderson and Susan Stewart: ‘You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair.’

To stop it getting a grip, loneliness can be countered on two fronts: mentally and physically. The former is more powerful. Even though you can physically surround yourself with people, you know that how you feel has nothing to do with them but is a condition of self. You can’t outrun it: you are only running away from yourself. So accept it, surrender to it, and deal with it. This is a process described by Susan Baumgartner in her book My Walden: ‘Loneliness, once the captor of my spirit, now seems like a dear companion and wears the gentler name of solitude. It happened slowly, gradually. Instead of fighting loneliness, I learned to take it inside of me and to fill it with thoughts and fantasies and plans. I structured it to be productive. I learned to count on its solid presence. It seems like I am never lonely any more.’

Accept that loneliness, along with happiness, sadness, birth, death, love and rapture are part of the human condition. Then move on.

Keep loneliness in perspective

It is never as bad as it seems. Hanako was an elephant given to Japan by the government of Thailand in 1949 when she was just two. She lived in a small enclosure in Tokyo Zoo for the next 67 years and died recently without ever seeing another elephant again. She was dubbed ‘The loneliest elephant in the world’. The reason I mention her is to put your loneliness in perspective. However lonely we are, on the ‘Hanako scale’ it’s nothing.

Being lonely isn’t about being alone

When you stop to think about it (and we rarely do), it isn’t the act of being alone that makes us feel lonely. I agree with Roy Sharpe (quoted in Celebrating Time Alone by Lionel Fisher) who said that it is living an unproductive, self-centred, unloving, friendless life that actually makes someone feel lonely. So take control and don’t make yourself a casualty of loneliness. Pick these off one by one and work on making your life
productive, outward-focused and loving.

You are important

There are times when I think that no one would miss me if I disappeared in a puff of smoke. That makes me feel lonely. Rationally, I am sure they
would and to remind myself I keep a big scrapbook with loving cards, letters and emails from friends and family. I am important to them. I have it in writing. You have to have a sense of self-worth, and to like yourself. You must be important to you.

Don’t let the fear of loneliness get to you

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’, meaning fear is a state of mind that has the power to affect us if we let it. It is not a real, physical thing but it will have an impact on our minds if we allow it to. In his book The Eighth Passenger Miles Tripp tells how, during the Second World War, Lancaster bomber crews consisted of seven men, but they sometimes referred to the ‘eighth passenger’. This was a passenger they were all aware of and who, although invisible, would influence the outcome of their mission. That passenger was fear, and they knew they had to control it.

The fear of loneliness has the power to upset us more than loneliness itself, which has no capacity to harm us. Don’t allow it to get a grip. Fold it up, put it in a box and throw yourself wholeheartedly into something else.

You are not alone

You are not alone in feeling lonely, because all over the world there are others feeling the same velvet sadness, and we are all connected by invisible threads. I am willing to bet that somewhere, right now, among the 300 million people (!) who live by themselves, someone will feel as you do. Take comfort in that.

Be wary of social media

With technology you are never really alone unless you choose to be, but somehow loneliness feels more acute, painful and poignant in this switched on, screen-filled, connected society. I can’t be the only person who feels pangs of – what is it: envy, sadness, FOMO? – looking at some of the more smug Facebook postings as I sit at home, alone, on a wet Saturday night. I just know that I am not that lucky person laughing in the bosom of a jolly family gathering, sitting with partners at that dinner, or soaking up the atmosphere in Paris, Bali or Bhutan with my husband. On balance, Facebook does not help loneliness. Block the ersatz friends and use technology proactively, Skyping or emailing friends or joining a virtual community you are interested in. Think about what social media adds to or detracts from your life and cut your cloth accordingly.

Extract from The Art of Living Alone and Loving It by Jane Mathews

The Art of Living Alone Cover FINAL SML