Only the lonely – a response to Stephen Fry


Trying to unpick how we can feel alone in a crowded room

This post bounces off Stephen Fry‘s blogpost Only the Lonely, as well as following on from my previous one on this subject, The curses of loneliness and isolation.

Stephen pulled out a great quotation from Bertrand Russell:

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

All of that applies to me, along with a desire to never give up hope of finding the first, to continue with the second and to try and do something about the third.

Not being able to connect with others

I can’t ever recall in my adult life being able to ’emotionally connect’ with anyone in my day-to-day life at a deep and meaningful level that brings both a level of emotional fulfilment and mental stability. It’s been something I’ve been trying to unpick for years and am only now beginning to work out both how and why this has been. The first was due to my own lack of courage – a personal flaw that will forever haunt me. The second was being brainwashed by church as a child. Hence I find clerics speaking out aggressively in the media against equal rights or for special privileges an incredibly triggering experience. It’s also probably why I liked Kate Smurthwaite’s talk in Cambridge recently – it felt like someone was speaking up for me in a way that I didn’t have the courage or confidence to.

Breaking away from religion being like ‘coming out’

People sometimes underestimate just how difficult it is to do this. Some of the more aggressive atheist types view it as an intellectual issue only. I’d guess for many people who have been brought up in a community with strong religious bonds, it is far from that. Turning away from the religion means turning away from a community of people – and possibly your family too, all of whom you have grown up with. And it’s replaced by what exactly? This is what happened with me – it was all replaced by a big void with nothing and no one to turn to. But I could no longer live a lie: pretending to believe in something that I clearly did not. What hurt even more was finding out that others were in denial of what had happened/what they had said in the past, were unable to argue the merits of their case, were brainwashed themselves or were part of the wider ‘lie’. Still being in my hometown unable to move elsewhere means I am trapped by this inertia.

A life story through one pair of eyes only

This is one of the things that for me compels feelings of loneliness: There hasn’t been anyone who has lived through and experienced the same things that I have at my side. It’s the peaks of ecstasy as well as the troughs of the lows that matter as much as each other. This for me also explains the endurance of the top politicians in both Labour and the Conservative Parties over the decades. With the Labour party you only need to look at how many of their senior politicians were active in established student politics before becoming ministers. The list of former NUS presidents speaks volumes. For the Conservatives, think the Cambridge Mafia through to Cameron’s chumocracy. Yet my time at university wasn’t one where you had that intensity of activity where you could create the long-lasting bonds. In one sense I was sold a duck by the university and didn’t have the courage to leave when I knew things weren’t right.

I wanted to be somewhere where someone was looking out for me, but in the end few did. Least of all the institution. I’m no longer in touch with anyone from my university days, and haven’t been for many years – which saddens me greatly given the hopes I had had for it. Ever since then, life has been full of one-off seemingly random highs and lows, but with no single thread to link them all together, let alone a big stream or story to be part of.  What made things more upsetting was with some of the organisations I did voluntary work for, the amount of time & effort I put into helping them function was not matched by the strength and depth of friendships made. Sometimes it really was a case of trying too hard and caring too much. The harder you search for something or try to hold onto something that has already gone, the less likely you are to find/keep it.

Turning up to the opening of envelopes and front doors

I accuse myself of doing this with Puffles – but with good reason in terms of what I can only describe as a ‘voluntary community development activities’ in my local area. It keeps my mind busy but as before, I’m not making the really meaningful connections that are emotionally fulfilling. I also get a fair number of invitations to places and events – often through Puffles, but as Stephen Fry says, we only have ourselves to come back home to. In terms of turning up to things locally, the extra effort stemmed from learning that the key word in the phase ‘social media’ is the word social. In terms of improving things in Cambridge, setting up a Facebook page or having a popular blog or Twitter account was never going to be enough. But having got so far in what I’d learnt, there seemed little alternative but to continue.

One of the biggest challenges both personally and with all things community development locally is that while I get to meet lots of people, the people I get to meet don’t seem to get to meet each other – even though they may have similar interests. Even introducing people to each other doesn’t guarantee they will become good friends, let alone stay in contact during these high-pressure time-poor days. As I mentioned six months ago, having friends and acquaintances dispersed all over the place can never make up for having a close primary group of friends that live locally. Even with the groups and societies I’m part of today locally, I can’t help but feel my mind is operating on a different wavelength. But how do you explain that?

‘I don’t want to be alone, but I want to be left alone’

These were the words Stephen used later in his blogpost. This describes my disposition too – there are times when I need my own space but there are also times when I need to be with people. Especially after my own mental health crisis of 2012, I need a whole day to recover from spending a day in the company of a group of people. I also have the self-awareness of being a very ‘intense’ person – someone who on a bad day can suck the life out of someone in the way Joanna Rowling describe the dementors in Harry Potter. It’s an intensity that I struggle to deal with myself, which is why I’m sometimes wary of getting too close to others because I don’t want to inflict my personal demons onto them.

…Which is why I worry about the future too

Given the state of my mental health, I’ve become reconciled to the idea of not having children of my own. Seeing how exhausting it is for close relatives, I know that in my heart of hearts my mind and body could not cope with the pressure of employment, bills and bringing up little ones, let alone having time for a significant other. It’s only because of family support that I’m able to get by – I have no idea where I’d be if I was in this lady’s position. What do you do if you are ill, single and have no family or community support to fall back on?

Part of my own loneliness conundrum is reconciling a dream I was sold that never came true. The difference between now and say a decade ago is that there are some things now that cannot be changed. eg going back to university and making up for three lost years first time around. There’s also a realisation that the middle class stereotype of where I should be is also something I’ll never achieve. Hence my blogpost I’d like to teach the world to sing rambling on about what I might do instead of looking to get an unaffordable mortgage on a rabbit hutch, paid for by a job that will never make ends meet anyway.

What things can alleviate loneliness?

I don’t pretend that there’s a magic policy-wand that can be waved to solve it for everyone. My problems with loneliness – as are Stephen’s, are in part a function of our mental health issues. In my case, I discussed some of them recently – a year after my breakdown.

Social-policy-wise, I look at the rabbit hutches and the bland boxes going up all over Cambridge (basically because the planning system ties the hands of local councillors due to big money knowing how to ‘game’ the system) and wonder how such communities living in some of them can ever be sustainable. How do you build a community (because in parts of East Anglia that is the scale of some of the plans) that can combat loneliness while allowing for a reasonable level of privacy? Even if there was an answer to that question, it’s not something I believe the current global economic system can deliver.

Social media as cure and curse: The commodification of loneliness

A curse in that I haven’t disciplined my habits to know when to switch off – when does social media switch off? But it can alleviate some of the worst aspects of things by making people aware that there are more things going on that they can take part in. But that in itself has become a commodity that the moneymen have cottoned onto. How many things are now trying to brand themselves with the tagline ‘Be part of it’? Even one of the latest developments of poorly-designed expensive boxes has the tagline ‘Be part of it’. Yeah…only if you have £250,000 going to purchase one of your expensive appartments. F…ooglesticks-off out of my hometown, parasite.

Also on my part, there are also numerous things that I’d like to go to/be part of that either I can’t afford to go to (train fares/payment of event fees) or end up feeling like a bit of a schmuck for rocking up alone because no one else wants to go with me. (Even though the events concerned on the whole have been more than good. Take this lot for example). Thus the feelings of missing out with the former, or sadness that others were not there to share the experiences, are compounded.

“Ah, you’re missing one of your levels in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”

Some of you may be familiar with this (though note the criticisms). Sort out the ‘family, friends and sexual intimacy bit and job done’. Well…not quite, but I see your point. The nature of mental illnesses are that you can’t expect to take a course of medication and expect to be ‘cured’. For depression and anxiety-related conditions which I have suffered from, my experience is that we can only manage them – and how we do so will be unique to our own disposition, conditions and life experiences. Loneliness, just as with mental health problems themselves are not things you can throw money at to make them go away. That more and more of us seem to be suffering from both means that what are both very personal but different issues for Stephen and myself are also now public policy issues.

Yet on the public policy issues, there seems to be very little substantial movement.






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