“No Man is an island", John Donne famously wrote, and yet, here we are today—islands, every single one of us.
Men, women, children, communities, countries, we all have our own experience of acute loneliness.
As we mourn how life used to be, loneliness and uncertainty looms over us like a dark cloud, and we scuttle to evade it, dilute it, ease it and numb it.
That’s why, 'alone together' has become one of the most trending catchphrases across all social media handles. In fact, search interest in the term “alone together” is up 75% since January according to Google Insights.
But for me, 'alone together' is problematic. It seems like a euphemism, a paradox, an escape.
Yes, social media has been our saviour. Yes, we all have a sense of solidarity, of “everyone’s in it together”. Yes, it’s a message we need to hear. But doesn’t it also discount the individual experience of loneliness? Are we truly “together” in our experience of loneliness?
For every person, loneliness is very personal. You might be feeling lonely, because you’re having to do this all by yourself, or even in the midst of your family, while losing your job, your income, your self-worth.
For our migrant workers, who have been forced to take the loneliest and longest walk back home, loneliness presents itself in the most inhumane of ways.
For doctors, nurses, frontline heroes, the loneliness experience is all about personal vulnerability in the face of greater good.
We are witnessing the loneliest of funerals, the loneliest experience of illness and of our lives, thanks to COVID-19, and yet we can barely talk about it.
We sometimes block the gnawing feelings or turn a blind eye or quickly switch topics in fear of exacerbating our own and others’ sense of isolation.
We have built denial responses and affinities towards carefully crafted messages that offer immediate relief. We manically carry forward our Pre-pandemic sense of FOMO and performance orientations. We camouflage our true, lonely selves with experts-in-the-making social media personas and with our entertainment hats on for Zoom get-togethers. We distract ourselves by mindlessly snacking on both content and calories. The result is feeling tired and exhausted, more than ever before.
I’m no expert or guru on loneliness, but I do feel we need to slow down a bit.
Let’s stare loneliness straight in the eye and hear what it has to say.
Let’s channel a little Maya Angelou and learn to embrace the loneliness no matter how hard it might be.
Because perhaps this discomfort can offer some definitive comfort. Perhaps it is a necessary priming to usher in better ways to be and behave. Loneliness is teaching us to…
Be one with our emotions
As days turn into months of social isolation, we are finally being forced to engage authentically with our difficult emotions. Loneliness is making us look at our raw, emotional selves in the mirror and build from there.
We can now clearly see what triggers us, calms us and keeps us going. Loneliness has successfully enforced a deep relearning of ourselves, mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally—of who we are, what matters to us and how we want to interact with the world.
There are a billion stories of these transformatory tales of loneliness and emotional resilience, of mental health finally getting the attention it needs, let’s make space for them.
Slow down and soak it in
Loneliness is making us look at “time is what we make of it” in a whole new and different light. It makes us realize that time can be daunting and yet precious. It reminds us that it’s okay to slow down and that it’s also OK to catch up. It makes us question, do we spend time doing things that accentuate our loneliness by pegging ourselves against each other or do we spend time connecting, learning, building, healing, creating. Loneliness, whispers into our ears, only you are the master and curator of your time, so use it wisely!
COVID-19 has thrown light on inequalities, impudent selfishness, the us-versus-them conundrum. This, combined with a universal sense of loneliness, is fueling and strengthening a new humane call to arms, to be more sensitive. Loneliness is teaching us that sensitivity is not a weakness but in fact, it’s brave. It serves as a bridge for compassionate and courageous action. This kind of connected sensitivity, that is being born of loneliness, a sense of alienation and the will to help, is what the world needs to lean into, more than ever.
Heal with nature
Loneliness, especially in a Post COVID world, has made us find joy, healing and a new-found appreciation for nature. In our loneliness, the skies seem bluer, the leaves greener, the stars brighter, the animals bolder and the insects louder. All of these are gentle but solid notes of a chorus that has begun to echo in every single one of our minds (and brands are tuning in too): that as we find ways to heal, our planet desperately needs to heal too.
Fuel our fire
When we are lonely, we hear our hearts pounding through our chests, aching for connection, yearning for hope. We might suffer, crumble and fall, but it’s that longing, aching, yearning and learning that transforms us and makes us want to connect.
If we want to be and feel truly 'together' in a new world, we must enter it by making space for authentic loneliness, both individual and collective.
For it's only by acknowledging, learning and reckoning with the different but difficult shades of loneliness that we truly fuel our fire towards building a better and brighter world.
Mohini Varma is AVP of strategic planning at FCB Ulka in New Delhi