Sep. 19th, 2012

tevere: girl in gloomy cityscape (city girl)
This NY Times article about the physical effects of loneliness reminded me of a book I read a couple of weeks ago, Emily White's Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude. I'm perennially interested in why upper-middle-class people who seemingly 'have it all' can still be miserably, existentially unhappy (see also: Madeleine Levine's The Price of Privilege, which pretty much explains all the rich-kid basketcases I went to school with), and White's memoir is a good insight into one particular reason for unhappiness.

Unfortunately I've already returned the book (and as I was reading it the day I went into labour, my memories of it are a bit... scattered), but there was a lot of interesting stuff in there. White distinguishes between 'alone' and 'lonely' (some people who live alone are lonely, but others enjoy solitude; conversely, partnered people and people with lots of friends can still suffer from loneliness), and argues that despite popular misconceptions, lonely people aren't necessarily introverts, emotional vampires, lacking social skills, or unwilling to meet new people. Instead, loneliness is a quality rather than quantity issue: it stems from the feeling of lacking meaningful connections to others, not 'being friendless'. Short-term, situational loneliness, the kind we can all get when we move to a new city where we don't know anyone, tends to resolve itself over time as we meet new people, but the sufferer of chronic loneliness, for reasons inherent and inculcated, remains unable to connect. Unhappily, chronic loneliness also tends to be self-reinforcing: lonely people, aware that loneliness is regarded by others as a character flaw, often withdraw into themselves out of fear of rejection-- making connection even harder. There's no easy cure, although White suggests that the increasingly-lost state of being in 'passive company' may help:
Passive company is something that’s hard to define but easy to recognize. It’s the comfortable, quiet state of cooking as your spouse reads the paper at the kitchen table, or half-listening from the study while your brother takes a call in the living room. Passive company provides us with the chance to simply be with someone else. It’s time, as Glenn Stalker puts it, “when nothing much is being said.”
Which reminded me of the last panel in this comic explaining how to live with the introverted (ironically forwarded to me by one of my ex-flatmates, an energetic sort who enjoys bizarre-to-me combinations of activities such as, "Let's go for a run together and discuss post-conflict transitional justice!")

The Boy, who's one of those aliens who enjoys unplanned encounters with acquaintances, meeting complete strangers, talking on the phone, going to social events where he doesn't know anyone, and who has around 2000 friends on Facebook, often worries that I'll get lonely. We move around a lot, I don't go out of my way to socialise and meet new people, and I only have a few close friends-- almost all of whom live in different cities, if not on different continents. But I enjoy solitude, I have ample passive company, and most importantly I have something White completely dismisses: online fandom. Fandom gives me shared interests, good conversations, long-term friendships, interesting strangers passing by. I've been in fandom, in one form or another, since I was sixteen; it's not the biggest part of my life, but it's been one of the most enduring.

That said, I wonder if I wasn't content with my offline life, if fandom would be enough. Sometimes I peek into the little windows of people's lives, scrolling past on my network page, and I wonder how many of those people beneath the fandom chatter are lonely, unhappy, just wanting-- waiting-- to connect.

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