So what could possibly be wrong?

In the UK quality daily The Guardian, journalist Marion McGilvary writes with excruciating candour about her life and her loneliness.

Swirling clouds mask the void

Beyond the swirling confusion lies the unending empty void

She hangs herself up on the hooks of being a loser, having no real friends, being unlovable, being uninteresting, being ashamed and being the only one to feel like this. It’s painful to read, especially since she also admits to having an interesting job, young-adult children who come and go, liking her own company, active social life – having what many would see as a very good life.

So what could possibly be wrong to make her feel so lonely?

Marion McGilvary obviously doesn’t know, or isn’t prepared to admit it. I can only guess, given the clues in her article, but I’d imagine it’s about the illusion of emptiness, the aching gulf that opens up in people that can’t be filled by anything outside, however full the diary, however busy the life.

Marion, you’re not alone. The irony of loneliness is that something like a billion people feel the same way, which is a very big club. And feeling lonely doesn’t make you a loser. All it makes you is human. All those frantically busy people Tweeting and posting on Facebook, rushing hither and yon and being so terribly in demand all the time… what’s the betting that they’re desperately trying to fill the void, too? Or at least trying to ignore it.

We’re so good at deceiving ourselves, and some of us do quite well at deceiving other people. But beneath the Oscar-winning performances, the void yawns wide enough to swallow us down into the depths of nothingness.

Ms McGilvary will never find the answer in other people; she has to find it inside herself. The good news is that the answer’s already there.

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Academic approach to loneliness won’t find the answer

Yesterday and today (9-10 July) academics and social policy-makers are in Oxford at a conference on loneliness.

It’s vital that we understand more about loneliness, why it occurs, what it does to us, how to define and how to measure it. It’s great that so many agencies are coming together to tackle the problem, and good that it’s getting some media coverage.

I hope that the conference will lead to more radical solutions to tackle loneliness in the elderly – the group getting the most attention – which go further than tea parties and volunteers visiting. Can they find a balance between really effective solutions and dictatorial policies that shove people in directions they really don’t want to go in? It will be very difficult.

The problem, as I see it, is that the entire focus is on external solutions. The underlying belief is that the answer to loneliness lies outside the individual. It relies on other people. My belief is that this is fundamentally flawed. The answer must lie inside each of us.

Otherwise why would people surrounded by others still feel empty and desperately lonely? Why would busy people, famous people, sociable people all feel lonely? Why would individuals with partners and children living with them feel lonely?

There is more to it. There is a simpler solution. Loneliness is not a fact, it’s a feeling. Feelings can change. And they change inside us – emotions are chemical processes in the body, and although they are prompted by outside stimuli, they can be prompted by our own thoughts, and we can react to them in different ways if we are aware that we can choose. It’s about awareness, and finding the connection between ourselves and the rest of life, and it’s about a change in attitudes. Everybody will feel lonely sometimes, but nobody needs to feel lonely for long; life changes such as bereavement, illness or injury, unemployment, migration – all these can create intense feelings of loneliness, but stopping them from becoming long-term is perfectly possible.

The conference will be fascinating, and I’m confident they’ll come up with some interesting and productive conclusions, but they’re missing the point. We need to look inside for the answers, not wait for other people to bring us the solutions.

Living emotions through drama

Working out emotions through fictional characters, Full of life, full of joy, loneliness, grief

William Hurt in ‘J’enrage de son absence’

A good review of a new French film, “J’enrage de son absence” (Maddened by his Absence) reminded me that living through painful emotions through fictional characters can help, especially if the emotions are complicated and confusing. Of course, jumping into a film about grief-stricken, lonely people when you’re feeling much the same can lead to a sense of drowning in it, so it doesn’t always work… But if, like me, you don’t quite know what you’re feeling and can’t quite sort out why and what and how and when, watching a drama play out through fictional characters can help get things a bit straighter and – bonus – make us realise again that we’re far from being alone in feeling this way.

When my sister rang to tell me she had cancer, it was just as I and a friend were going in to a cinema to watch ‘Love Actually’. Disaster. The upbeat, sweet romantic comedy was so much at odds with my feelings that it meant me crying silently through most of the film, especially at the end, with the images of happy people greeting each other at the airport. Hundreds of them, all ecstatic at seeing their families and friends. Instead of thinking positively about what I could do for Ginny, and being able to talk it through with my friend, I was stuck in the dark cinema with my imaginings and all this happy sweetness. In contrast to the feelings on screen, I was picturing the worst and starting to grieve for what was in danger of being lost. Not good.

Have you had an experience of fiction affecting your emotional state for good or ill?