The Yes Woman: My mother is dying and I have never felt more alone
All the Lonely People: She must confront her own mortality and I must confront what my life will be like without her
Loneliness is not just a symptom of the human condition, caused by lack of socialisation. It is a running theme throughout every life. To be human is – ultimately – to be alone.
Loneliness tends to expand as we age and gain understanding, ask questions about the world around us and discover the ultimate insignificance of our place in it. It isn’t peculiar to artists or philosophers; it is an inevitable reality of life. That’s not to say that loneliness is all negative – it is a sign that we are all to some extent existential philosophers.
We’ve come to recognise loneliness as something that happens when we don’t have adequate access to other people. We are social creatures, and lack of interaction with others is very bad for us. But there is a deeper form of loneliness that stems from the realisation that we are all ultimately isolated. It is this loneliness that can take over our lives and lead us to unhappiness.
We are happiest when we feel as though something or someone has penetrated the barrier that keeps us separate – the first madness of a new relationship, or joining a group or community.
We do these things, ultimately, because we know that we are completely alone inside our own skin. The realisation sends some of us in search of healthy, meaningful connection, and others in the opposite direction. They indulge in excessive or addictive behaviours partially because the reality of being alone is too painful to tolerate.
Without the company of God
Nietzsche, who famously said “God is dead”, was referring to the ultimate loneliness of death, and to accepting that the onus for leading a decent life is on us. According to him, we must take responsibility for making our own moral decisions and living a good, meaningful life without the ultimate hope of reward or fear of punishment. Rather, we should do good for its own sake. Nietzsche, without a God to praise or blame, is forced to confront the reality of his own life and death, without the hope of more ultimate meaning, and to do his best with it.
This can be comforting. Rather than living in perpetual hope that we will belong to something greater than ourselves, or attempting to flee from the loneliness that is part of being human, we can live in the knowledge that we are in control. You decide what you become; you are responsible for your successes and achievements, and you are also responsible for your negative actions. In this way, we can be courageous enough to sit with our loneliness without allowing it to consume us.
Whether or not you believe in a god, Nietzsche’s outlook is useful because it is how we should live anyway. We all know people who never fully grew up, who blames others for their situation, who won’t accept responsibility for their actions. These people evoke pity and distaste, but never envy.
Their insistence on running away from themselves and from reality stunts their development. In an attempt to burn away their loneliness, they condemn themselves to confusion and unhappiness.
My mother’s diagnosis
This all sounds straightforward enough, but sometimes it is put to the test in the cruellest of ways. When my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer at just 57 a few weeks ago, I’d never felt more ultimately alone.
When someone you truly love is condemned to a terrible illness, you – as well as the sick person – must confront death. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, loneliness has flared up like an old wound. In some ways, I have never felt so cut off from my mother. The mind inside her – the one that I rely on and take comfort in – will go with her body.
When I sit and have tea with her, this knowledge drives me almost to despair. Here we sit, attempting to comfort one another, close enough to hold hands, although our individual situations are very different. She must confront her own mortality. I must confront it too, but also what my life will be like without her.
We sit together, but are ultimately alone inside ourselves, and that has never felt more poignantly tragic than it does as we politely sip tea and talk about my brother’s upcoming wedding. We just sit with it. There’s nothing else to be done.
- Yes to . . . accepting loneliness. No to . . . being alone
- This week in Life & Style we have been exploring loneliness from every angle in our series All the Lonely People. If you have been affected by these issues, Alone helps older people who are homeless, socially isolated, living in deprivation or in crisis, 01-6791032, alone.ie. Jigsaw works with people aged 12-25, jigsaw.ie. The Samaritans are available 24-7 on freephone 116123