• What I craved was solitude - that magical, underwater quiet that lets you think, work and wade through the noise of the outside world. (Moment RF)Source: Moment RF
No longer the realm of the single, recently bereft or heartsick - months of isolation has opened us up to talk about loneliness in a new, shame-free way.
By
Candice Chung

3 Jun 2020 - 12:50 PM  UPDATED 10 Jun 2020 - 4:18 PM

Last year, when the plane trees in my suburb grew green and spring smells laced the air, I packed my bags for Norway, where the sky and leaves were starting to turn a completely different shade.

I had tickets to a chilly autumn. A retreat three hours outside of Oslo I couldn’t quite afford. I’d booked the trip one evening after months of clicking open the same tab that had pictures of a remote, lakeside patch where un-ironic yoga and meditation classes were held.

The goal — said the soft-spoken Norwegian site — was introspection. Five days of nothing but nature and the hum of your own mind.

In truth, I didn’t have to go far to be alone. Besides an occasionally needy plant, my life is the kind you could gather and fit inside a backpack in case of fire or a cheap flight. But what I craved was solitude — that magical, underwater quiet that lets you think, work and wade through the noise of the outside world. And I’d grown hungry for it.  

Besides an occasionally needy plant, my life is the kind you could gather and fit inside a backpack in case of fire or a cheap flight.

Small heartbreaks are enemies of that quiet. They make bright, sunny parks loud with memories; and turn laid-back bars obnoxious with spectres of good times. A tiny ramen shop was my last straw. The place served excellent noodles, but had no qualms about broadcasting flashbacks of the shy, too-tall boy who taught me names of trees and once fished out a mouldy cup under his best friend’s bed and washed it. “You can’t live like this, he’d said to her — an advice I took when he told me, over steamy noodles finally, that he couldn’t love me.

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city,” writes author Olivia Laing. It’s a flavour we all know now — living cheek by jowl with people we can’t touch, and yet have somehow grown familiar with the wrinkles of their unmade beds through our windows, on our laptop screens. 

Pre-pandemic, Laing describes that specific brand of isolation as a kind of ‘self-expatriation’. In her 2016 book The Lonely City, she names the heartsickness of feeling like a foreigner in your own life. Surrounded by strange, unreachable bodies, she was struck by a feeling of “being walled off or penned in”, like solitary figures in an Edward Hopper painting, trapped in the glass aquarium of our own needs.

I suspect it was that internal claustrophobia I was fleeing. At a small cafe in Oslo, three flights and oceans away from my own city, I was on the last sprint of a deadline when one half of a young couple quietly walked in. They found an empty spot next to my table, and stood holding each other silently, happily, for minutes. I sat frozen by the striking display of intimacy — charged with envy. How else to understand you were lonely, until you saw absolute longing translated in a physical gesture like this? 

Afterwards, I wanted to tell my friends of the afternoon but had no language for it. 

Back in 2016, when Laing charted the harsh geography of loneliness, she drew on those who walked before her. Solitary artists, respected analysts, psychologists, social neuroscientists — luminaries on the subject of isolation who are now being summoned anew in a fresh crop of essays and stories that have bloomed from our unmeetable needs.

One woman, alone and trapped in a new country, shares her private ritual with a journalist.

“Sometimes I put my palms on both my cheeks and pretend that someone else is holding my face,” she tells The Atlantic, “Or I clasp my hands when I am falling asleep and pretend someone is holding my hand. It’s so embarrassing to confess that. But it’s true.”

That image of her clasping hands in bed — a fragile, unlikely circuit for body warmth — is something anyone who has ever spent time alone in the dead of night, patiently talking their hearts down from near-panic — can instantly identify with.  

That image of her clasping hands in bed — a fragile, unlikely circuit for body warmth — is something anyone who has ever spent time alone in the dead of night, patiently talking their hearts down from near-panic — can instantly identify with.  

“We are each other’s habitat,” says psychology professor James Coan, who teaches a course at University of Virginia on why we hold hands. “We now know that humans are adapted to each other not unlike the way that salamanders are adapted to cool, dark damp environments.” In other words, our appetite for intimacy isn’t mere luxury — but a necessity. Our hunger for connection a matter-of-fact need.

Months after that Norway afternoon, I find myself on the phone with a geographer who lives across the park from me. We speak about the last time we cried, and why. When my turn comes, I describe the happy scenes I can clearly picture, but can’t quite place myself in.

“Longing,” he says. And though we were each in our own home, with one word — through the walls, the quarantine and the balding plane trees — I felt a tightness in my chest ease. 

If nothing else, months of isolation has given us a new way to speak about loneliness.

If nothing else, months of isolation has given us a new way to speak about loneliness. No longer a suffocating glasshouse for the single, the bereft and heartsick; it’s a difficult terrain we’ve all had to  scale and make peace with.

“We’re all lonely now,” Laing writes in a recent piece for the New York Times. If there had been “an abiding feeling that [loneliness is] a punishment for social failure, an inability to be sufficiently popular or liked” — our collective fate has helped us see things differently.  

As restrictions ease and we begin to move slowly, cautiously towards other bodies, we might even remember that loneliness is a byway to empathy — an old, hidden path that we’re now learning to see.

Candice Chung is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @candicechung_.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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