It is one of the most universal feelings in all human existence. Nevertheless, it somehow makes us feel strangest. Solitude still is, in society’s eyes, a failure, a defect, a whim. Perhaps that is why few people realize that, when ignored, it can also be as fatal as any other epidemic.
One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do / Two can be as bad as one, it's the loneliest number since the number one.” It was the end of the nineties years and, in the face of the uncertainty of the new millennium, the first lines of the first song (One) from the soundtrack of Magnolia - the movie by Paul Thomas Anderson which explored despair and guilt, resentment and shame, but which, above all, tore into the guts that make up loneliness - resonated like a lifeline for the millions of viewers who, all over the world, recognized themselves in visual and poetic schizophrenia of the American director. Then, as today, listening to Aimee Mann's melodic timbre was something comforting, a kind of apparition. “One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do / Two can be as bad as one, it's the loneliest number since the number one.” And suddenly, a click. It’s not just number one that it's lonely. Number two, which apparently lives in the plural, can be as lonely as number one. It was as if suddenly the singer - who wrote much of Magnolia's soundtrack but who, however, is not the author of One, to which she only lends her voice; the song is an original by Harry Nilsson - tell us, whispering: no one is alone, we are all alone.
Anderson's characters, who carry loneliness on their shoulders as if they deserve nothing - deep down, it is the most constant company they have ever known - are a perfect and cruel metaphor for a society that lives in a mad rush, without time to think about the fundamental principles of the human condition: affections, emotions, feelings. An ultra-brief summary of the last hundred years allows us to understand how it all happened: industrialization gave rise to the multiplication of jobs and the consequent explosion of cities, which became hyper populated metropolis, housing individuals who seek to “win in life”, whatever that is, giving rise to new types of families, new forms of socialization, new habits, new fears; information passed to circulate almost immediately, the continents are no longer isolated and permanently interconnected, goods and services (all goods and services) are at a distance of an “add to bag.” Seen from the outside, under the eyes of our ancestors, who traveled by horse drawn wagons and lost the struggle with mortality rates around the age of 40, we have everything that is possible to dream. And here we are. In 2017, Theresa May, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, announced the creation of a Ministry of Solitude to combat what she considered be “the sad reality of modern life.” In that country, where it is estimated that there are more than nine million “lonely” people, the problem is seen as an epidemic. The same is true in the United States. Research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, carried out three years ago, says that loneliness is an imminent danger to public health and could become a bigger problem than obesity. The outlook in Portugal is no longer encouraging.
Filipa Jardim da Silva is a Clinical Psychologist and Specialist in Clinical and Health Psychology. Solitude enters her office several times, almost always without asking permission. She agrees to speak to Vogue, with the necessary distances, not least because the loneliness, which the dictionary defines as “the state of being alone”, gains even more relevance when half the planet lives suspended, dependent on a quarantine that can be (a lot) violent for mental health. We start at the beginning. The Beatles have a song called Eleanor Rigby, whose chorus says “All the lonely people / Where do they all come from? / All the lonely people / Where do they all belong?” Does it make sense to ask this question, in other words, does it make sense to question who the people [who feel] alone are and where they come from? “Usually people who feel persistently alone are the ones who benefit [from the act] of working on their relationship with themselves. When we do not make a quality company ourselves, when we are not well with us, then it is natural that we feel alone, even if accompanied, as if that feeling of loneliness translated in an internal disconnection. In this case, the solution is not only to create quality relationships with others, but also, necessarily, to cultivate a relationship of self-love, and respect, with us.” It is interesting to insist on this point because loneliness is not, contrary to what many want to imply, “something in our head.” “It really isn’t. The negative effects of loneliness and social isolation on our health are well reported and there is a demonstrated relationship. When we feel alone against our will and as a result we have a perception of absence, belonging and abandonment, stress hormones increase, as well as our inflammatory levels, which can increase the risk of heart disease, arthritis, type diabetes 2, cognitive deterioration, depressed mood and even suicidal ideation. More immediately, the discomfort caused by this feeling can negatively impact sleep quality, appetite, global energy and concentration. Some studies suggest that the impact of social isolation on health is identical to the impact of other factors such as obesity, tobacco consumption and high blood pressure.” Solitude may be invisible, indescribable, but it is real.
And it is, in a way, unseemly, dirty. No one wants to assume that he feels alone - not to others, not to himself. “We have grown to be little trained to know how to be alone in our company. We are uneducated to enjoy silence and tranquility. As if being alone was bad, sad, a sign of rejection or not belonging. We grow up in homes where there is always background noise, whether music, television or mobile phone. We associate shared silence with a lack of connection (when it can mean just the opposite). This lack of training makes it difficult to cultivate a quality experience of self and sometimes the automatic search for occupying the spaces around us, not always with the required requirements.” That is why we often find mechanisms of self-sabotage, which only distort our sense of loneliness. We live in an illusion of company. We are apparently increasingly connected - but how many times, in the presence of others, do we escape to digital worlds? Our “real and intense” way of socializing, perhaps, is, after all, a facade. If so, is loneliness a cause or a consequence of this paradigm? Are we, in a way, the ones who put ourselves in this situation? “Current circumstances are challenging as they invite us to an accelerated autopilot, where there is always more to do. We collect likes at the speed of light, but we have difficulty remembering the last hug. We have hundreds and thousands of contacts on social networks, we follow and we are followed, but when the night falls and silence appears, an emptiness is felt. The quarantine came to change the pace and shake everything and everyone abruptly. Naturally, it is a misfortune, but as we cannot change what has already happened, we can enhance this experience and make it a moment that generates personal development.”
Quarantine: it was impossible to escape it. It is not the brave new world we wanted, it is just a new world. “The current wave of COVID-19 has come to impose a social isolation that weakens us all for being something that appeared without warning, outside of our power zone, against our will. The feeling of connection helps us to overcome adversity so it is important not to lose it. This confinement exposes the quality of the relationship we have with ourselves and with others as well as clarifies the style of life we were living”, explains Filipa. And she adds: “So, it is possible to find unpleasant information that will stir us up. However, if we close ourselves in a bubble, disconnected from ourselves and without having contacts with friends even at a distance from a screen, we run the risk of diving in a day to day devoid of meaning and purpose. And that is how psychological illness is made.” What goes through the mind of someone who feels permanently empty, misunderstood, alone? “Negative thoughts can arise that generate hopelessness, a loss of meaning for life. There may be an existential question about the meaning of our life and even suicidal ideation. These ruminant and negative thoughts will tend to hinder mobilization to good levels of self-care, so if these thoughts are not well captioned by us as thoughts that they are, they may become internal truths and thus condition us more, making the future an uncertain scenario. The feeling of loneliness and emptiness, when persistent, can generate anesthesia and immobilization that make people abandon themselves, without building routines in their day or taking care of themselves. It is as if this experience could lead to ‘induced coma’ for some people as a subconscious protective mechanism.”
In a more or less risky parallelism, because it is impossible to prove, is this “induced coma” what so many artists have tried to tell, over the centuries, from the depths of their agony? Solitude, if ever could be represented, would be a picture of Edward Hopper. It could be Automat (1927), that unforgettable and disturbing portrait of a woman looking at a cup of coffee in a bar where she seems to be the only customer - a bar where there are no signs of life, where the darkness of the street contrasts with the cold lights of an icy space, suspended in time. It could be Nighthawks (1942), the greatest work of the American, where four “hawks of the night”, if we are to believe in the title, are captured on the counter of a restaurant - three customers and an employee, apparently together but separated, illuminated by the melancholy clarity of silence, a silence that seems to scream, that seems to spill out, that seems to touch us, we, that observe them, and them, that surrender themselves to that emptiness, that abyss between thoughts and the life that has stagnated is not knows where. It could be Eleven AM (1926), Cape Cod Morning (1950), Morning Sun (1952), and so many others, because if there is anything common in Hopper's work it is this feeling of silence, of secrecy, of ... loneliness. “With his deserted urban landscapes and isolated figures, the American painter captured the loneliness and alienation of modern life. But the pandemic has given his work a terrifying new meaning”, wrote one of the art critics at The Guardian in mid-March. And he reminded us of one of the golden rules of solitude, defined by Honoré de Balzac in the middle of the 19th century: “Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine” (literally, and at the risk of losing the English pace, it will be something like "loneliness is a good thing, but we need someone to tell us that").
Since it is impossible to have that someone permanently, how should we deal with loneliness? Is it possible to delete it? “Instead of looking at loneliness as the main problem and rushing remedied solutions, it is important to first identify the feeling of loneliness when it is present, give it a name and legitimize it, starting from a perspective of curiosity and empathy instead of guilt and judgment. Only when we focus our attention on our emotions, with intention, is it possible to begin to understand them instead of trying to extinguish them urgently. Even if that contact creates discomfort, it is important to cultivate mindfulness practices in our daily routine in order to take ownership, more consciously, of what inhabits us - thoughts, emotions, physical sensations.” And this, reinforces Filipa, is something that requires a high personal investment. Because this is where we have to confront each other, that we have to undress ourselves, and accept that there is something to improve. “Once loneliness is recognized, we have to explore it: when it appears, what physical sensations are felt at the same time, what thoughts accompany it. We can go a little bit into our history too: in what situations of the past, recent and distant, have I experienced loneliness? How did I deal with that experience at the time? Loneliness, like any other feeling, signals unmet psychological needs. That is why, more than running for concrete actions, it is important to understand what is being signaled to us, so that we can, in a more personalized way, respond to what we really need.” And never give up. Never.
The images are of a Helsinki stripped of people. The streets are empty. The cinemas, the ice hockey rinks, the metro stations, the amphitheaters - places of worship in the capital of Finland, unanimously recognized as the happiest country in the world - are abandoned, destitute of their raison d'être. “For some people, the world has always seemed to be like this. Show loners that they are not alone.” The phrase, and the photos, belong to a campaign launched in April by Helsinki Missio, a Finnish entity that, since 1883, has been dedicated to preventing loneliness and supporting people who feel alone. “The loneliness created by the state of emergency is a problem that, momentarily, unites everyone. For some, this will end, but for others, it will not”, explained Maria Rakkolainen, director of the organization. "The loneliness of those who suffer from lasting loneliness continues, but it doesn't have to be that way." This is one of several attempts that, worldwide, have been implemented in order to alert to the dangers of an isolation that, only apparently, is temporary. The implementation of social distance and quarantine measures, in order to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, only accentuates a problem that continues to live in the shadow of modern societies: loneliness. Let us stay for a moment on these deserted streets. And when we reach out to anyone who, for whatever reason, may have already entered on that dark night, let us remember José Saramago's advice: “Make no hurry, but do not waste time.”
* Title of the 14th novel by António Lobo Antunes which, in turn, alludes to a verse by the poet Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night”.