“I have been trying, for some time, to find dignity in my solitude,” wrote poet and critic Maggie Nelson in her 2009 book Bluets.. When I read these words, they struck a chord.
I have been thinking a lot about loneliness for the last few years, as I have been in and out of it in various ways, the most extreme form, unsurprisingly, will come in 2020. Is there any dignity in it? Maybe not, and maybe that’s why we find it so difficult to speak or admit it.
A few months after the Covid-19 outbreak, people started talking about the corresponding “loneliness pandemic.” Pages appeared on the NHS and Red Cross websites advising on how to deal with the isolation imposed on us by the global health crisis and the accompanying lockdown. But before this year, several reports claimed that loneliness had reached dangerous and even life-threatening epidemic levels, and in 2018 Theresa May launched a UK government “loneliness strategy”. These concerns have always intensified especially during the winter and around Christmas, a time when charities and politicians frequently urge holiday revelers to think of and reach out to the lonely and vulnerable.
However, in all this there is not much talk about what loneliness really is, how it feels or where it comes from. In these settings it is an affliction: distant, alien and somewhat terrifying, which comes to us in the form of the elderly at Christmas, of newly born widowers, of those we do not love or of the forgotten. But to think of it as a kind of disease is a mistake. The historian Fay Bound Alberti, who has written a “biography” of the condition, argues that this way of thinking suggests “that it comes from outside, rather than something that is a social problem.”
Loneliness, then, is produced in part by the way we organize the world, and to address it we must seriously rethink how we approach our public spaces, living arrangements, and relationships. This includes questioning our dependence on certain forms of relationship – the couple and the family nucleus – as units of social organization.
I began to think properly about all of this around the summer of 2017. I had recently come out of a 12-year relationship and, not without a relationship, had moved to Ireland to work on my PhD, the loneliest of endeavors. After years of domestic life as a couple, he lived alone. Loneliness is not the same as loneliness, of course, as Nelson says, “Loneliness is loneliness with a problem,” and some of this was fine: I read, walked, wrote, went out, and made new friends. But my isolation, along with the rawness of a recent heartbreak, was often a problem.
In those moments, I would send messages to friends and family at home, filling my phone screen with three, four, five WhatsApp chats, and in these exchanges they described their own struggles: too much to do, not enough time or space for them , An excess. of people and things to take care of. The contrast in our predicaments seemed, at times, completely absurd and, above all, wasteful. I often wondered if it wouldn’t make sense to join my home to one of their own, to redistribute some of my care resources and they, in turn, share some of the human company that I often yearned for.
That “screwed in” was, I suppose, kind of a pre-Covid version of the “support bubble”, although there was more flexibility in my vision. The “home” has taken on particularly rigid meanings this year, as we have been forced to spend virtually all of our time in our homes and severely restricted from mixing with others. This has caused all of us to consider the realities of our living arrangements in new ways. Feminists have long noted that the burden of housework and childcare falls overwhelmingly on women, and confinement has made these inequalities more raw.
For me, as someone who lives alone, the confinement has meant dealing with relentless and often overwhelming loneliness, so I have returned to the alternative living arrangements that I pondered in 2017 with a new seriousness. At 41 I have decided that I no longer want to live alone, but what do I do about it?
I have had some extremely rewarding cohabitation relationships at home and shared flats in my life, but in reality this way of life is not taken seriously or supported by our society’s approach to housing. Too often, shared housing exists in the context of the precarious rental market and is perceived as interim measures on the road to more permanent and “adult” arrangements of home ownership, a family, marriage, or at least cohabitation. with a romantic partner. But I don’t want to depend on a romantic partner to avoid loneliness and I don’t think anyone, single or in a couple, should have to.
Many second wave feminists thought long and hard about how to organize households and communities in a way that separates the care of essentialist ideas from the family and distributes it among communities; There have also been long-standing efforts in the LGBTQ community to develop alternative family models on similar principles in response to the challenges they have faced. These ideas are reviewed and updated in recently published and collectively authored publications. Care manifesto, that imagines kinship models more expansive than traditional family models and aims to recover “genuinely collective and community forms of life”.
The experiences that we have all lived in 2020 have shown how important and urgent this project is. Such considerations should not be seen as optional add-ons when we talk about the world we want to live in after the pandemic. Let’s imagine ways of doing things differently that allow us all to live in more communal, less isolated, and more enjoyable ways.
Eli Davies is a writer and academic researcher, and co-editor of Under My Thumb: Songs Who Hate Women and Women Who Love Them, an anthology of female musical writing
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism