One can experience loneliness in two ways: by feeling lonely in the world or by feeling the loneliness of the world… And when you feel that you are dying of loneliness, despair, or love, all that you have not experienced joins in this endlessly sorrowful procession.
― Emil Cioran
Let me start with some stupid questions. Why is there a Home button in our phones? Why is there a Homepage on every website? Have we mistranslated the meanings of home because we desperately seek one and settle ourselves whenever and wherever we feel we have found one?
All creatures orient towards home. It is the point of origin from which every species sets its bearings. Without our bearings, there is no way to navigate unknown territory; without our bearings, we are lost. Home need not always correspond to a single dwelling or place. We can choose its form and location, but not its meaning. Home is where we know and are known, where we love and are beloved. Home is mastery, a voice, a relationship, and a sanctuary: part freedom, part flourishing- part refuge, part prospect.
The Economist declared loneliness to be “the leprosy of the 21st century”. Loneliness is grief, distended. Loneliness is the great suffering upon the earth, the desire to be loved, to be understood, to have some other heart to be near to, Kahlil Gibran wrote in A Tear and a Smile. We starve for intimacy. We wither without it. Loneliness is a state of profound distress. In loneliness, silence resounds with the mournful clamor of bells kneeling for a dead universe. To belong is to feel at home. Home can be anywhere. Loneliness is the feeling that no place is home. Is that all we can do in loneliness? To long for not being lonely? To long for a home? Have we found a home on our phones? Or, are we trying to?
People who are not lonely are terrified of loneliness. They shun the lonely, afraid that the condition might be contagious. One tragedy of loneliness is that lonely people can’t see that a lot of people feel the same way they do.
But, the internet is no cure for loneliness, and research supports this intuition. Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell asserted that we are capable of 2,50,000 different facial expressions. Can emojis and emoticons successfully replace them all?
Almost every aspect of great art and literature is the result of flow. Yes, moments of flow can happen in solitude, while taking a walk or a bath, while making a late-night snack or even, while taking a dump. But we can’t compare flow with loneliness.
In loneliness, one can write The Book of Disquiet or The Heights of Despair. That kind of literature is the result of loneliness, I guess. But, to sit down and write I need hope. I need hope before I pick up a pen or start punching a keyboard.
Loneliness makes people travel without leaving their rooms and without any luggage. They know their furniture more than they know about their friends. They speak with walls, bulbs, books and clocks more than they engage with their parents. In 1790, Xavier de Maistre locked himself at home and wrote A Journey Round my Room.
The loneliness and acute disorientation that overwhelm people, when faced with disconnection from social media, isn’t simply because they did not know what to do with themselves but rather that “they had problems articulating what they were feeling or even who they were if they couldn’t connect. They feel as though they had lost part of themselves”, writes Shosana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Loneliness negates so much of life that the spirit’s blooming in vital dislocations becomes almost insufferable, Cioran wrote. But sometimes loneliness can become a collective danger as Hannah Arendt explored more than sixty years ago in The Origins of Totalitarianism, where she traced the path from a thwarted individuality to a totalizing ideology. It was the individual’s experience of insignificance, expendability, political isolation, and loneliness that stoked the fires of totalitarian terror. Such ideologies, Arendt observed, appear as “a last support in a world where nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon.”
Our smartphones certainly mean constant companionship or at least the promise of constant companionship. The phone is always there, beckoning us with the promise of fulfilment and excitement. It promises instantaneous entertainment and variety. Sometimes, while reading Jane Austen, I wonder— would her books exist if she had a smartphone? Stupid. But, yeah, sometimes I wonder that about many authors.
Kahlil Gibran explores a Sufi idea of humankind that has no fixed nature, no unity; yet behind the conditioned masks of personality lies an unmistakable “essence.” This essence can only grow at the expense of personality, “the masks” which must be torn from him. In the opening to The Madman Gibran encapsulates this idea, describing the narrator’s epiphany when he becomes a madman:
You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen, – the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives, – I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursèd thieves.”
Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.
And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, “He is a madman.” I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.”
Thus I became a madman.
And I have found both freedom and safety in my madness: the freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us. But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a Thief in a jail is safe from another thief.
What if I ask myself: What would I do in times such as these if I had no phone, no social media? What if I wasn’t listening to Spotify or binge-watching Netflix? What would I be doing? What would I do if all these masks were stolen from me?
Should we consider exploring our own selves during these times? What if we will find answers that we won’t like. Maybe we have been avoiding some dark realities all along. Maybe we will be disappointed, even heartbroken. Maybe it was such a realization that made Pessoa write: An anxiety for being me, forever trapped in myself, floods my whole being without finding a way out, shaping me into tenderness, fear, sorrow and desolation. An inexplicable surfeit of absurd grief, a sorrow so lonely, so bereft, so metaphysically mine… But not doing it and hiding behind our screens won’t change it. Only by travelling through these routes, can we try to find a way out of this maze. Maybe the result will be like what Cioran might have realized that there is a great advantage in the loneliness of suffering. What would happen if a man’s face could adequately express his suffering, if his entire inner agony were objectified in his facial expression? Could we still communicate? Wouldn’t we then cover our faces with our hands while talking? Life would really be impossible if the infinitude of feelings we harbor within ourselves were fully expressed in the lines of our faces.
The second Caliph of Islam, Umar (Peace be Upon Him) said, “Every saint has a past and sinner has a future.” It can be horrifying, yes, but how will we know if we won’t try?
To help us strengthen the tradition of quality reading and writing, we need allies like YOU. Subscribe to us.
Muhammad Nadeem is a reader and writes about what he reads. Among his writings are reviews, poetry, and short stories. He also works with translation and criticism, and has previously been published in Prachya Review, Cafe Dissensus Magazine, Kashmir Lit, Sheeraza, Inverse Journal, AGNI, Poet Lore, 32 Poems, Jaggery Lit among other literary magazines and journals. His poems have been translated and published in several anthologies. His reading interests are diverse, and he has reviewed hundreds of books for literary publications. He is also a former editor of the Mountain Ink.