A Biography of Loneliness and the course of a (research) life

Finally, my new book A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion has landed.

I used to roll my eyes at the idea of birthing a book, perhaps because metaphors are so emotionally charged and my own pregnancies, births (and miscarriages) were traumatic. But there was something about this book’s process that has been about transition, birth and death and everything in between: the ‘pinch points’ of experience that mark us in such different ways.

Loneliness has a biography in its own right - and it intersects with our own biographies, hence the book’s title. I started writing this book as a cultural historian intrigued by the panic about loneliness: had it really become worse? I discovered that loneliness came about at a distinct historical moment. That it could be linked to social and economic changes, as well as theological ones. That it was shaped by individual circumstance and experience but also by political ideology.

Many people seem to be lonely: the married and the single, the young and the old, the bereaved and the homeless, the mentally ill and the outwardly happy. Sometimes loneliness is transitory and other times it is chronic. Sometimes it causes illness, other times it is a blessing. And we cannot understand what loneliness means without appreciating its historical and personal evolution.

During the research for the book I questioned whether I was lonely too, and I thought about its causes. Between submission of the manuscript and the publication, I moved house, changed jobs and divorced. I found happiness in a new city, a new job and a major new research project.

Significant life changes or pinch points are transformative by their nature: they force us to consider what we need from ourselves and others, what we will and won’t tolerate, the people we want to be connected to and the communities that matter to us.

This is important because though loneliness has no opposite, it is remedied by community: physical, symbolic, practical and emotional. It is not the number of connections that matter, it is the nature of those connections. It is whether there is empathy, compassion, understanding and a sense of ‘community’, a word itself that means many different things, as my book shows.

A Biography of Loneliness traces the emergence of loneliness as a ‘new’ emotional state under neoliberalism, as well as the incidence of loneliness in the lives of historical others: Queen Victoria, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf as well as some lesser-known names. It shows that loneliness is a social as well as a psychological emotion; that it can be ‘a disease of the blood’ as Plath put it, but how it can also be a source of liberation and creativity.

I talked to Canada’s CTV recently about why a loneliness pill isn’t the way to solve a so-called loneliness epidemic. Our solutions need to be social and collective as well as individual. And that means taking responsibility and accountability for others - in the online and offline worlds.

It is the nature of the individualistic West not to be accountable for others, to see this lack of accountability as ‘natural’ somehow. So we pretend not to see the suffering or others, or to know that someone is unhappy. We tell ourselves stories about why people are homeless or alone or depressed. We choose not to look beyond the charming man facade, to see the abuse that it might hide.

We turn a blind-eye to the troubles of others because neoliberalist society tells us that’s OK. Or at least a vocal enough section of that society that passes as the norm. Libraries closing? So? We don’t use them. Social and housing benefits slashed? Scroungers should find jobs. Elderly people having nobody to change their bandages? Their families should do it. No work? Must be the immigrants. Teenagers struggling? Blame social media. Kids in cages? Not our kids.

I wonder how loneliness would be reframed in an age of compassion, if we acted as though we were each conjoined, somehow, in a bigger project of human kind. And is that so preposterous an idea? ‘No man is an island’, no woman either., as the poet John Donne put it in 1624: ‘We are each ‘a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. (MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.)

What would happen to loneliness if we embraced collective responsibility to one other with the commitment and bravery of a 16-year-old girl crossing the Atlantic on a yacht?

To find out more, check out A Biography of Loneliness. You can pre-order from the Oxford University Press website directly with a 30 per cent discount using this code: AAFLYG6