The dangerous effects of social isolation plaguing over nine million people in Great Britain have prompted Prime Minister Theresa May to appoint a Minister for Loneliness. All the latest research suggests that a lack of friends and family increases the risk of heart disease, arthritis and cognitive decline. “I want to address this problem seriously,” said Mrs May in a statement quoting the elderly, the demographic most likely to have no one to share their lives with. (But significantly, by no means the only ones.)
In India we are somewhat better equipped to handle loneliness. Maybe because there are so very many of us and the entourage culture of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles is still thriving. It’s also because in the Hindu philosophy of dharma, human life is divided into four goals. The first three are Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha. In the last, Sannyasa, the attainment of the ideal, moksha, can only be achieved alone, once all other responsibilities are over.
Ancient Indian texts like the Bhagawad Gita acknowledge this time spent alone as an essential part of the human experience, to be embraced and dealt with for true, final, liberation. Leaving aside lofty concepts of spiritual ideology, there are pragmatic reasons why Indians wouldn’t think so negatively about the state of solitariness. On the scale of potential catastrophes that could befall most of us at anytime, loneliness barely qualifies as a real problem.
And it isn’t, compared to being hungry or cold. Or ill, and unable to afford a hospital. That is the reality for crores of people for whom survival is a daily challenge. To them the luxury of free time — and that actually being a cause of chronic unhappiness—must seem obscene. In fact, for many Indians time alone is priceless, because it’s always so frustratingly out of reach.
Perspective tells us everything is relative, after all. While a summing up of other peoples’ far worse situations as a reassurance that your own aren’t that bad can be comforting, it also needs to be said that even the best life is hard. No one’s winning. And modern living places such a premium on not just happiness but a perpetual state of determined and delirious ecstasy, one has to wonder whether the burden of this expectation is making people even more unable to cope with being alone.
Social connections are a fundamental human need but part of growing up, and growing old, is figuring out how to wing it on your own. Most interesting is the research that you can be lonely in a crowd, and that loneliness afflicts adolescents and married people as much as it does people suddenly bereft of a spouse. What that tells us is, sure, it could occasionally be painful being alone, but it would be wise not to idealise a life full of people as perfect. There’s no point denying that often it’s the people in your life that cause the most stress. Or that, when one is finally free, the overwhelming emotion might just be a relief.
Unsurprisingly, women handle being alone much better than men. The term “Merry Widow” has no male equivalent. When my grandfather died well into his 80s we thought it would shatter my grandmother. Instead, she blossomed. For the first time in 60 years, she didn’t have to incessantly listen to cricket commentary. She finally got control of the TV remote and took to watching Hindi serials till midnight. In fact, she looked so happy we contemplated how she’d react if my grandfather was to come back and the conclusion was that she’d probably throw a stone at him.
The agonising preoccupation of old age, the thought that the best is behind you can be countered by the recognition that life has different peaks, quieter ones perhaps, but no less rewarding. Like in that most memorable cinematic ode to exquisite isolation, Her, about a man who falls in love with his operating system. Among the many profound questions it raises about the depth of human interactions, is the one the AI machine asks him: “What’s it like to be alive?” firstname.lastname@example.org