In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow tells his tale to a group of seamen in a night so black that none could see each other. Their blindness to each other is, of course, metaphorical. “It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence,” says Marlow, “that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone.”
That last line is one that has stuck with me ever since I first read the novel for my A-levels. It captures the melancholic truth that no matter how close we are to others, we can never truly understand what it means to be them. Although the single may envy content couples, two never completely become one. At any point, the person who felt so embraced and loved may be left alone again, be that by accident, illness or unpredictable changes in feeling. How often do we see people baffled when they find themselves betrayed by someone they thought they knew and could rely on?
The fact that we are, in this sense, all by ourselves may provide some cold comfort for the lonely. The grass may be greener on the sociable side but no matter how many close friends one has, no one can ever escape the fundamental solitude of human existence.
And yet at the same time, Marlow’s way of putting it can be misleading. The way he talks, it sounds as though, whereas others are opaque, we are transparent to ourselves. But is that true? The hitherto loyal wife who runs off with another woman may be as astonished by this turn of events as her devastated husband. The minds of ourselves and others are neither open books nor completely closed. In both cases, only some parts are visible and we cannot see into every corner.
Paradoxically, because we are to some extent strangers to ourselves, we are less alone than we think: left alone, we are always in the company of someone whose depths we have not fully plumbed.
How can I feel less lonely, wonders a reader, and she’s most definitely not alone in that respect. The immediate answer is easy to formulate if not to put into practice. Loneliness tells us that we feel the need to connect with others more, so let’s do just that: contact the people in our life whom we may have been neglecting, go out and join classes and groups where we may make new acquaintances, brush up our social skills.
So far, so obvious. But that is only the first step. For a start, such a campaign may not yield the results you’d like, for a series of reasons, and you may end up just where you were before. Even if you do meet people, this may not resolve your feelings of loneliness. In any case, there are good reasons to complement outer action with inner work.
Our feelings about our own sociability or lack of it are likely to be exacerbated by prevalent cultural assumptions. We are frequently told that the presence of positive relationships in our life is important for our well-being and that being lonely is in effect bad for our health. So if we perceive ourselves as isolated we are bound to evaluate our situation negatively.
There is room to challenge that cultural message. First of all, we should distinguish solitude from the feeling of loneliness. Some people are able to revel in their solitude and have a life full of interests.
But even if you do feel lonely in the absence of friends or someone to share your life with, this can be more or less problematic depending on how you relate to that feeling. It is natural to try as hard as we can to get rid of unpleasant feelings – but this approach is often counterproductive. Instead, we could make friends with our loneliness, allowing it to be there and accepting it.
This does not mean being happy about it or giving up on trying to make positive changes. But it could mean that the issue ceases to fill your horizon, leaving space for other things.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England