There are certain kinds of misfortune that I can’t look in the eye. We all have a tendency to turn away from injustice, because we suspect that there is nothing we can do to change it, or because we simply don’t have the energy to confront it ourselves. But I am not speaking about unfathomable tragedies: people being bombed in countries far enough away that we can delude ourselves they are somehow different from us; or the prospect of an already unequal Earth being ravaged by a worsening climate crisis. Like most other people I do nothing concrete to address those issues – but I can at least consider them, look in their direction for more than a split second. Not so with lonely people.
I recently saw the film Nomadland. It is a stark, bleak meditation on a group of people who cannot live in the conventional manner, with a permanent address and steady job, and instead travel the United States in mobile homes. Some of them seem born for this kind of restless lifestyle – such as “Swankie”, who is played not by a professional actor but by Charlene Swankie, a nomad in real life too.
In the film, Swankie is dying, but she is at peace with having lived “a pretty good life” and seen some “really neat things” while travelling. She describes a handful of the more spectacular natural phenomena she has witnessed in her life on the road: moose in Idaho, pelicans in Colorado, and hundreds of swallow nests on a cliff in Alaska, the birds flying above, their reflections in the water beneath her, making her feel as if she was flying with them. It was an experience so moving that “I felt like I’d done enough. My life was complete,” she says.
Others, including the central character Fern (Frances McDormand), have been forced by economic disaster and personal crises into a life they would not otherwise have chosen. What I found most painful about the film was the profound loneliness that hung over Fern. She had, in some sense, chosen it – even though it caused her pain. Fern began her nomadic lifestyle after the death of her husband meant she had to leave their home, but she did have other options: her sister, we learn, invited Fern to move in. But Fern rejected this offer, just as she also rejects the offer of substantial, meaningful company from a fellow nomad who develops feelings for her.
I find people who choose loneliness endlessly fascinating and – as one who has dedicated much of my life strategising to avoid isolation – alien. Anything, it has usually seemed to me, is better than being alone when you don’t want to be.
I have ruined many days by catching a glimpse of what I take to be another person’s lonely life: the older man who gnaws on his thumbnails and stares into the middle distance from a park bench; the woman who chats idly to the birds she is feeding. I walk a different route so I don’t have to consider that they may have nobody to talk to. Perhaps these people are not as lonely as they seem: perhaps I am patronising them, projecting my own anxieties on to them. But I can’t help but see the loneliness I fear present in them.
Like the other two great dreads of my life – the realisation that I have a body I will never escape, and that everyone I know will die – the possibility of loneliness appeared to me very suddenly, and relatively late in life. The idea that someone could want company and not find it didn’t cross my mind until my mid-teenage years.
Until, in fact, the advent of romance. Dating – especially the ruthless, teenage, status-driven kind – made me see that whether or not one was single was often not a choice at all. You might be alone even when you longed not to be – it depended on what other people thought of you, what sort of looks and charisma and sense of humour you’d been lumped with. If you had none of the above it was quite possible that nobody but your parents would voluntarily bother to spend time with you.
The idea that appealing to a romantic partner – in my case, to men – was necessary in order to avoid loneliness would come to dominate my life: leading me to seek a connection with people with whom I had nothing in common, who were not interested in me, or who disdained and disrespected me.
What was the alternative, after all? To live a lonely life, to not be chosen? To always speak and not receive a response? To keep just one cup, one plate, one bowl in my home (as a long-time bachelor did on an episode of the reality TV show Married at First Sight)? Eventually, I became too angry and exhausted to bother soliciting attention or care from men who didn’t want to give it, and swerved the opposite way instead.
I would never compromise anything! I would do exactly as I wished at all times and make all decisions based only on my desires, with no thought of others or what might happen later! Mostly, this works for me. I don’t owe much to anyone, and nobody owes anything to me. I am generally happy in the moment.
Except that, every so often, my body remembers with a twinge that the future exists. It has been useful to figure out that I do not want to sacrifice pleasure and work and friendship for relationships whose primary function is avoiding loneliness. It’s harder to know the healthy, appropriate way for me to resolve my fear of being left, finally, alone. What do I do – I, who have found that the pursuit of love reduced my essential self, and yet still feel that being with people is the best and most important part of life?
This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us