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All the Lonely People by Sam Carr: Insights into the human condition of feeling like an outsider

Collection of real-world vignettes casts light on our disconnection from others and argues against medicalising a cornerstone of existence

Sam Carr finds comfort in the idea of lonely suffering as a source of self-insight and positive growth – albeit for those who have enough resilience to weather the storm.
All the Lonely People: Conversations on Loneliness
Author: Sam Carr
ISBN-13: 978-1035005512
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £16.99

In Dr Sam Carr’s latest book, All the Lonely People, the social scientist provides readers with a comforting realisation of the ordinariness of loneliness. Challenging the notion that loneliness is an uncommon affliction reserved for the elderly and the bereaved, Carr’s conversations with the young and the old suggest that this deeply human condition emerges from four main sources: through the loss of significant relationships, through the invisibility of heartache and hidden trauma, through the experience of being an outsider and, ironically, through our very attempts to escape the state of loneliness itself.

Though Carr is an academic psychologist, All the Lonely People is not a scholarly discussion of loneliness but rather a book of human stories, aimed at bridging that gulf between our vast internal experience and the limited tools we have for expressing it.

While each chapter stands alone as a story – Carr encourages his readers to “move around… the stories, in the same way you might approach curious examination of a sculpture or statue” – some exhibits prove far more engaging than others. There is no doubt that Carr revisits some rather hackneyed portrayals of loneliness, but he ventures into fresh territory just often enough to sustain the reader’s attention.

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One will encounter the experience of “double isolation” felt by a migrant straddling two cultures; the repressed anguish of a woman who, conditioned by “stiff upper lip culture” prefers the idea of euthanasia to emotional dependency; and the hopelessness of a young porn addict who, trapped within a “supernormal” template of sex, finds himself emotionally and physically disconnected from the woman he loves.

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In one of the most powerful chapters, Carr documents an intimate car conversation he shares with Alex, his teenage son, about Alex’s experience of loneliness. Any reader who has survived adolescence will nod knowingly at that all-too-familiar variety of loneliness that seems to transcend time, culture and place. It seems to grow out of that warped perception that revealing your true self – or your real music tastes – would expose you as far less interesting or worthy of friendship than your peers. However it begins, this special brand of loneliness always seems to end with simply pretending to like what everyone else likes, since bland conformity or self-erasure is apparently preferable to being a pariah.

Carr does not shy away from unmasking his own vulnerabilities, including his habit of trying to avoid the scrutiny of others by adopting the role of listener or “faceless screen”. He is equally honest about his fear that Alex’s loneliness might reflect his own parental deficiency. And yet, the reader gets the sense that, although Carr is pained to realise that his child is just as lonely as the next kid, he is also comforted by the knowledge that Alex was spared the “barren desert landscape” of his strained relationship with his own father – an alcoholic who seemed as ambivalent about showing love as he was about receiving it.

Unlike Carr’s experiences of loneliness – first as a “parentified” child growing up in a dysfunctional family and later as a single father amid a sea of co-parenting couples with perfectly manicured lawns – Alex’s loneliness may simply be an inevitable product of learning to navigate a world with other living bodies.

This leads us to two central arguments from the book. First, Carr contends that if loneliness is a fundamental aspect of human existence, perhaps it’s best not to medicalise it. Second, he portrays loneliness as a multifaceted experience unique to each individual. In one of several cringey analogies, he likens it to the many shades of a “Dulux colour chart” – akin to one of those he used to marvel at as a kid.

While Carr mostly succeeds in interweaving personal narrative with third-person accounts of loneliness, there are times when his self-disclosure does not feel particularly instructive. His recounting of a socially awkward date with a stranger, nearly resulting in a one-night stand, offers little beyond a pedestrian insight into the limitations of casual intimacy to alleviate loneliness or, more specifically, his sense of dislocation as a single father. The reader cringes no less when he prefaces the statement “it wasn’t her, it was me” with the semi-apologetic admission, “I know it’s a cliche”.

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In equating loneliness with a kind of rebirth (in Jungian terms, a “mortificatio”), Carr seems to find comfort in the atavistic idea of suffering as a source of self-insight and positive growth – albeit for those who have enough resilience to weather the storm. Personally, I find the less idealistic, almost irreverent view of loneliness, embodied by the 72-year-old widow Paula, more appealing. After enduring the torment of her husband’s death, she has finally discovered the thrill of being unencumbered by the expectations and wishes of others: “… For the very first time in my life, I’m able to do what I want to do.”