Loneliness alert! Rounding up the unusual suspects

How our exaggerated respect for personal freedom and independence undermines the social fabric of modern societies
Akhil Katyal
1 October 2010

Fire alarms at my postgraduate student house in London are always a ready excuse to hang out. Every time the highly annoying siren sounds off, I see students acknowledge it with a very odd mix of frustration and amusement. We clamber down the stairs making the familiar shrugs and smiles to each other, making it clear that we all really hate this. But something very peculiar happens after the first half-a-minute of the ritual rant against the housing management. People break out into conversations about what they were doing or more usually, what they were just about to do if the alarm had not gone off. Some bring their mugs of coffee down with them and do the sip and chatter. Those in the bath-robes look awkwardly about as if they can’t find the right address. The front yard begins to look like a party, and like any other party I’ve been to in London in the last two years, it breaks into some very loud, talkative groups with some folks standing by themselves in the corners.  

The smoke alarm, 99% of the time, mean nothing serious. Usually, someone has just smoked in their kitchens or has made pan-fried noodles and the smoke alarm has caught the whiff, things like these generally. So the siren by itself is a non-event, a formality. Except that it becomes something else all together. What is formally a situation of potential crisis becomes a pretext for running into others, for a bit of casual nattering. So much so that when the alarm ceases, some people look half resigned to end the banter. Some continue the conversations, some hurriedly get back to their rooms and others seem half-reluctant. 

The last time this alarm-cum-party happened, I heard a German friend of mine say, slightly sheepishly: ‘I am so glad these alarms go off once in a while. I would die sitting in my room otherwise.’ She somehow managed the thin line between humour which gets everything in without making it sound soppy and the confessional which is too pathetic a genre to insert into a two-minute chat. Her evident relief at getting out and mingling with others was offset by her exaggeration (I would die) and kept it just at bay from being a wretched admittance of loneliness. It is characteristic of modern living that loneliness is broadly framed as a test of the individual, a test of social integration in which the individual has failed. It is hard for anyone to talk of loneliness in modern societies without necessarily having to own up to its responsibility, that is, without breaking into the familiar strain of the confessional. My friend had used that hyperbole to safely abstract out this culpability that talking about loneliness always seems to bring. 'The Loneliness,' Emily Dickinson wrote in 1863, is constantly that which 'One dare not sound.' 

Humour always has a double edge because it is about odd juxtapositions. Whether it is the finality of death and the mundaneity of the hostel room brought oddly together or whether it is the usualness of the knock-knock, who’s there routine with an improbable cast of the characters who knock or the unexpected things they say. Always emerging from a basic incongruity, humour becomes the key to understand that which it upsets by being out of place in it: the formal, the straightforward, the ordinary. Earlier in August this year, any of such possible humour was drained out of my German friend’s statement because all its incongruities were flattened out, all its oddness rendered literalized. In the second week of the month, all of us students received an email from the Registrar at SOAS that an Italian student enrolled in the Master’s programme had died in her room in the Paul Robeson House, the hall near King’s Cross where I lived. The email was formal, registered the sense of shock for such an event and asked the students to speak to the student services if they knew anything about the matter. The police had attended the scene due to the unexpected nature of her death. There was no follow up email. 

Later that week, one of my flatmates told me that she had been studying in the common-room on the day when the Italian student’s body was found in her room. Suddenly a group of girls had poured into the common-room looking visibly shaken. Some began to cry. They were the flatmates of the Italian student. The news had completely shocked them. They had found out that it was the parents of that student who had called the housing management when they could not get in touch with their daughter for over a week. It was only then the housing authorities had unlocked the room door to discover the body which had evidently been lying there all this time. None of the girls had thought it odd that they had not run into their flatmate in these last ten days or so. It was only in hind-sight that her absence in the kitchen over these last few days was noticed. This news now triggered in them a strange mixture of disbelief and guilt, for it was an unpredictably grim consequence of what they had thought was a quite ordinary set of days. 

The right place for the discussion of loneliness is this place of the ‘ordinary.’ It is not only in the branches of psychological therapy, where it is mostly examined as an individual profile but in the discussion of what make up the everyday designs of living, for instance, public-policy, architecture, self-help literature and education. It is a worthwhile task to constantly return our usual conversations on loneliness from the individual to the structural, from the case-study to the everyday, from the confessional to the analytic. Loneliness is not simply conceived as a lapse on one’s part but as a symptom of an entire way of life and its ideals.

Over the last two years in which I have lived in London, one of which has been spent in the student hall mentioned above, I have got some clues as to what these ‘ordinary’ methods of living might entail here. I have noticed my English and European flatmates thinking twice before knocking at my door because they are afraid they might be intruding. There is an entire industry of sticky-notes that must flourish every time they leave a message on the door rather than just knock! This overbearing hesitation to intrude is also recast in the fear of any kind of confrontation, a fear of experiencing a range of responses or emotions that cannot be predicted in advance. I have noticed flatmates leaving passive aggressive notes to each other, on kitchen doors and fridge shelves, asking them either to keep the volume low or to keep their milk bottle on their side of the shelf. Such conversations, where ‘intrusion’ is inevitable, are distilled into pithy notes to avoid having to talk it out, to avoid the frankness of disagreement or the possibility of quarrel. Friction that is a necessary part of living together is snuffed out by banal bureaucratic messages, albeit appended with a smiley. One Australian friend of mine, living at the LSE halls, whose own room used to be really messy and whose untidy habits sometime spilled over into the shared parts of the flat, had to go through formal group counselling at the student services because his flatmates claimed, among other things, that they were ‘emotionally scarred’ by his messy habits.

Underpinning all this, there is an overwhelming investment into the idea of ‘personal space.' Everyone carries one, like a custom-made halo. It is framed as an extremely fragile entity, always easily upset by the slightest of impositions. It is not surprising at all that the flatmates of the Italian student had not sensed her absence over all those days, or if they had, they did not actually go up to her door to figure it out. Their manner, it is easy to notice, is a slice of the usual where the threshold of what counts as a ‘disturbance’ to someone's 'personal space' is very low. It is a form of behaviour set at the altar of this idea of ‘personal space,’ which has come to have auratic dimensions within modernity and which, for instance, affects the very basic ways in which collective living spaces like hostels are conceptualized and built; Paul Robeson, in going with the theme, almost qualifies as cellular barracks. The idea of 'personal space', in the serial forms that it usually acquires, is about the dispersal of all possible dependences in the name of self-sufficiency, freedom and respect. It is about marking out the territory for others, and more crucially, for oneself. It is at length, as I see it, a structural cue to loneliness in modern life.

In the year 2000, the Indian intellectual Ashis Nandy was addressing the International Congress of the International Association of Group Psychotherapy in Jerusalem. Speaking among those who dealt with people’s images of themselves and of each-other, Nandy constantly veered the discussion towards the larger patterns of modern living as the conditions which make such images possible. He saw some serious developments in the wake of the ‘crisis in modernity.’ ‘A few years ago,’ he said, in the tone of a cautionary tale, ‘I was told that in large apartment complexes in some Scandinavian cities, electronic devices were fitted in the toilets of lonely, elderly people. If a toilet was not flushed for a long stretch of time, the janitor came and broke into the apartment to check if the householder was alive. This was a response to instances of lonely senior citizens…dying in their flats and the neighbours finding out only after the bodies began to decompose and smell.’ This story restages itself in the mechanization of care for the elderly in Britain today. Travelling around the city in its buses, I have noticed the advertisements for a peculiar product: the alarm bell for the old. If the elderly person living by herself takes a tumble or feels incapacitated in any way, by injury or by acute depression, she can push the button on this alarm and be immediately connected to the call centre of the service provider who might get in touch with relatives, if any, with ambulance services or might send their own personnel to rush to the rescue. It is only in the recent years that the care of the old has been extensively professionalized and has become a growing competitive sector in the market. The alarm bell is itself offered in all shapes and sizes, as a wireless pendant, a wristwatch or a belt-buckle, and with different monthly plans. The technology is conceived as an answer to the current situation where there are more than 7.5 million people living by themselves in Britain, half of whom are of a pensionable age. Several of these old people have found themselves brushed off the family carpet and have been living on their own for several years. Often their only outing over the weeks is doing their groceries with their bag-cum-trolleys. It is worth noting that the Borough councils in London now do more ‘pauper funerals’ than ever before where the old die unmourned and away from their families, which have either disappeared or are unable to bear the cost of the funeral. Press reports in Britain have now for sometime been calling loneliness ‘the silent epidemic’ taking over the country.

The real problem lies in the way we frame this ‘epidemic.’ Even as the council schemes for elderly group activities, for frequent outings by council transport to public functions and volunteer events, and for provision of some human company on days like Christmas and New Year’s Eve become more and more in demand among the old, there continues to thrive a misplaced, completely twisted understanding of this crisis. For instance, most of the advertisements of that alarm-bell framed the entire problem in terms of 'personal freedom.' They simply saw it as a problem of the loss of 'independence,’ that is, of not being able to be 'self-sufficient right till the end of one’s life.' What is palpably the burden of loneliness is recast as a wish to fend for oneself. What is at base about the lack of dependence networks, especially among the old, is restaged as a question of the ‘ability’ to look out for oneself. One such product is sold as being ‘ideal for seniors and others with evolving healthcare concerns who wish…to continue living independently in their own homes.’ The voluntariness of this desire for independence is uniformly overstated in such ads.

The ideal individual conjured up as the hoax gift of these campaigns is the one who has successfully eschewed all forms of dependence. The idea of ‘personal space’ which had clumsily organized the lives of the young becomes evidently grotesque by the time it is marketed so bluntly for the old. ‘If you have an older loved one,’ a campaign tells the family members, ‘who is struggling to remain self-sufficient but having difficulty living alone, you may want to consider purchasing a medical alarm system.’ Another campaign yells out this misplaced self-sufficiency in its caps locked tagline: ‘I AM ALRIGHT.’ The real problem at hand is not about the 'ability' or the ‘inability’ to live by oneself but the gradual loss of familial and social service networks that the old can rely on, a loss that has constantly mounted over the last few decades in Britain and become acute with the recent public funding cuts. The real problem, moreover, lies in those very elementary traits we have chosen to idealize beyond repair or consume endlessly in the market, ones which have contributed to our fear of relying on each-other in the name of self-sufficiency. What is problematic is the pattern of living in which these constant regurgitations of the mantra of independence easily make for common sense, in which, even when living by oneself is most visibly a compromise, we like to see it repackaged as a personal desire.

Last year, when, at one of the public events organized by the SOAS LGBT society on ‘Being Gay and Muslim,’ the panel was thrown open to the audience for questions, an undergraduate student, who first identified himself as Muslim, went on to quote some lines from the Quran that he remembered and interpreted them as outlawing ‘homosexuality.’ His line of argument was that I understand what you’re saying and I am completely fine with that but why look for ‘acceptance’ in a text where, at any rate, it is hard to come by. He evidently valued secular freedoms over what he saw as wishful religious debates, even as he established himself as ‘Muslim’ before saying anything else. I do not want to discuss the merits or demerits of his argument but instead focus on what happened next. The young chairperson of the event interrupted the student in the middle of his remarks and said that no kind of ‘hate speech’ would be allowed at the event which was meant to be ‘safe’ and ‘respectful’ for people of all sexualities. She referred to a bundle of papers kept at her table which, as she mentioned, was an event policy of some sort, a guiding conduct manual, for the way discussions should operate at any event of the said society. The student whose question had been foiled midway became slightly disoriented and protested clumsily that he is not ‘homophobic.’ He was asked to finish his remark succinctly and 'respectfully.' Hung on the noose like this, nothing very remarkable came of his question thereafter. Later during one of my own questions, that totemic rule-book was invoked again to stop  me from publically using the word ‘fuck’ which the chair said, is 'surely amusing everyone' but is not in keeping with the recommended method of discussion.  

It is high time we realized here in Britain that we have been overfed on this liberal diet of ‘respect.’ Any discussion that gives the slightest whiff of confrontation or even of active engagement is anaesthetized by the magic-word of respect. For the last decade or so in Britain, a strong strand of multicultural state policy has been popularizing a very deadening idea of ‘respect’ that first claims to understand the ‘difference’ between ethnic and religious communities and then effectively condemns them to their self-contained ghettos and rituals with this handshake of respect. It is remarkable how this strand of multiculturalism has been employed to ends that would have, by any other name, been called 'racist,' and indeed a form of 'racism' that cuts both ways with no easy allocation of the victim. This idiom, which also includes the insufficiently understood bywords of ‘tolerance,’ ‘acceptance’ and ‘politeness,’ does not so much as try to resolve the frictions that are inevitable in mixed societies as it tries to drive them underground. They reappear on graffiti, that collective unconscious of cities, in sometimes extreme forms. Earlier this year I found scratched on the bench in the Abney Park cemetery near my former house, in a tiny untidy scrawl: ‘Are anti-racism laws misused in Britain?’ This scrawl, in due time, had found its respondents who had started scratching their answers, some of which were more involved and ‘hateful’ than others.

It is odd seeing some of those discussions outsourced to graveyard benches which should be vigorously carried out in some of our own formal and informal conversations, without being nipped in the bud by the fear we might inadvertently end up disrespecting someone. This general idiom of respect is squarely relevant to our discussion on loneliness. It seems the more we ‘respect’ each other, in that numb way it has come to have in recent years in British policy, the less claims we will make of each other. Respect has always been a gesture of distance, and worse, of fear. It seems to have seeped into our relationships with each other and has undermined them. The more we prop up this idea of ‘personal space’ on the pillars of policy-dictated politeness and a rulebook sort of tolerance, the less likely we are to actually break the ice. This is not true only for those situations which involve ‘different races,’ though the immigrant, Irish or Indian, may feel it in a more acute manner, but is germane to the very method in which people decide what they can usually ask of each other. One of my Australian-Indian friends in London told me that he finds it very odd that although there is a culture of socializing over drinks so deeply entrenched in this city, the proverbial trip from drinking with someone in a pub over several months to actually spending a friendly evening at their homes can be excruciatingly long, if it does happen at all. Another Irish friend told me that he always feels odd sitting down in the tube if only a small spot is left free on the bench because he might be intruding into the ‘personal space’ of the other passengers, by being stuffed on the seat next to someone, inevitably touching them. For this friend: better to stand the whole trip out than to sit and rest! For those flatmates of mine last year: better to leave a message on the door than to knock! For that unlucky undergrad at SOAS: better not to ask at all than to ask something that could count as ‘hate-speech’!

It is odd how being by oneself has travelled through the history of industrialisation, large scale urban in-migration and of the explosion of the media. What was earlier a romantic blessing, it seems, has become a modern pathology. In ‘Evening Solace,’ the English novelist Charlotte Bronte (d. 1855), so familiar as she was with the vast lonely expanses of the nineteenth century Yorkshire moors, could still invoke the time of loneliness as a time of creative freedom, as a stimulant to thought; ‘there are hours of lonely musing,’ she wrote, ‘[s]uch as in evening silence come, / When, soft as birds their pinions closing, / The heart's best feelings gather home.’ Loneliness is here recast in its more refined dimensions as ‘solitude.’ It is home to one’s ‘best feelings’ and reaches its poetic acme in that Wordsworthian jingle about daffodils. It would be hard nowadays to sell the idea of wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’ to those that have been forced to make a habit of it, and it would be hard for those who spend a life-time between the couch and the television set to believe that such moments are also capable of poetic epiphanies; ‘For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude’ And then his heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils. Modern loneliness is the acutely disenchanted version of that romantic solitude that has become more and more incapable of a lyrical strand. From being a poetic eccentricity it has become a widespread state of affairs. It has been swaddled within the market jargon of independence and personal freedom which is at base really a freedom to purchase, it has been snuffed within the rampant budget-cuts in social services for the old and the single-person households in Britain, it has been moulded to sit well with the modern romantic idea of the ‘soul mate’ who is promised to redeem our loneliness and it has been rigidified by our almost fabled investment in our own ‘personal space’ that has assumed near morbid dimensions. It is time we need to revise the very mythic lore that surrounds our personality and marks out such clumsy ideals for it. As one of my teachers in Delhi, who knew and loved romantic poetry more than most of us, said in one of her lectures: ‘To be lonely should always be a rare privilege, not a habit that has come to be.’

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