What struck me most were the words you wrote about loneliness, that you can be amongst a group of people, take part in all the activities available, spend all your time in conversations, gossip, laughter, and still feel lonely despite it all. The knowledge that most if not all of these people are going to leave you, going to move on with their lives and have no more contact with you ever again – either because the desire for continued friendship is no longer there, begging to question of whether it ever was, or because the rules and regulations forbid further contact – can be more than disheartening. Your words spoke to me in many ways, but mainly because the reality of this loneliness compares to my own experiences, although the circumstances are, clearly, very different. It is said, and I believe it to be a fact, that a person can be lonely in the middle of a crowd: loneliness is not the fact of being alone, without other people close by, without contacts; loneliness is something more to do with the soul, with the realisation that, although other people are there, there is no one who is really close, who has a bond with you, who could almost be called a soul mate.
And then there is the fact that a person can be alone, have no one else around them whatsoever, be on a desert island in the middle of the ocean, but not be lonely. Of course, I’m not talking about someone who has an imaginary figure they can use, in a sort of mental Tom Hanks, castaway-style relationship, but someone who has the knowledge that there are people out there who are thinking of them, who love them, who haven’t forgotten that they exist. Michel de Montaigne, an essayist who lived in France in the sixteenth century, wrote:
We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them.
And he quoted Horace, who wrote:
In solitude be to thyself a throng.
His thoughts, of course, to the fact that children leave home, that a wife has other things to fill her time – bearing in mind the form of society he lived in at the time when he was writing – that wars, illness and death separate friends and family. And he was writing more about solitude, which is a completely different thing to being alone or being lonely in the middle of a crowd, but which some people tend to confuse, having never sought solitude out for the sheer pleasure of being alone, of being able to think things through, of being able to find a new path in your life.
No, loneliness is completely different, and one of the things which plagues us, as social creatures, more than anything else. Not just the fact of being alone amongst so many, as you rightly say, but also the fear of what is to come, of people leaving who have grown close to us, of people who do not keep their promises and disappear from the face of the earth, or so it seems.
I sometimes wonder what it must have been like for young women back in the sixteenth through to the nineteenth centuries. Settled down into a marriage, more often than not arranged by their family and certainly more of a tactical move than one of love, affection or even attraction. Taken out of their home environment at a very young age – a marriage at eight for family reasons, to secure a fortune or a title – and brought into a new one where they are suddenly expected to learn new customs and manners, to assume a function without being a complete part of the family structure. There, effectively, to run the household and produce (male) children. Even in Victorian times, in England, where movement was restricted and permission had to be asked for even the slightest act as an individual – common throughout Europe: I recently came across an application to open a German bank account for a woman, with a section for her husband to give permission. The form was from the late nineteen forties! Women were given hardly any education, and expected to spend their time with embroidery and watercolour painting, being too gentile, unless of the working classes, to even care for their own children. From the descriptions I read in so many history books, I can almost feel the loneliness some of the more intelligent women must have felt, simply oozing out from between the printed words.
Settled down into a forced home life with no hope of educated conversation? No chance to meet anyone, at will, to chat? This would be absolute hell for some, although there are those who managed to get out of this male-proscribed intellectual and social prison, even if they had to apologise for doing so. Cassandra Fedele, a sadly not too well known but brilliant humanist, writing to the Marquis of Mantua:
It should by no means seem strange, invincible prince, that I have taken a great and weighty burden on my shoulders in not hesitating to direct my little letters to you, though I at first – a very young girl writing to a great prince – was terrified and shied away from the task of writing.
Imagine how lonely she must have otherwise been, with her intelligence and her writing skills and a passion for discussion, if those very things she desired, and we take for granted today, had not been available to her. They were, of course, not available to most, which is why she – as a very young girl – felt the need to begin many of her letters with an apology for daring to take pen in hand and communicate in matters clearly designated only for the great minds of men.
And history gives us countless other examples of people who fight against the loneliness of their position in life, or geographical position, through personal contact: Marcus Tullius Cicero comes to mind, writing during his travels, his exile, to friends and family. Pliny the Younger, also a travelling politician who kept in touch with a wealth of people over many years – including an exceptional letter detailing the eruption of Etna, which destroyed Pompeii in 79 CE. Jane Welsh Carlyle, a highly intelligent Scottish woman, married to a standoffish and successful historian and confined to the strict social mores of London society, even if the bohemian side in Chelsea, a complete change to what she had experienced in Edinburgh. Her letters to a wide variety of people encompass many volumes and, although she died in 1866 and the first collection of her letters was published within six years, remains a wonderful source for study and the compilation of her unpublished works, her letters to friends and acquaintances.
Where, I wonder, would these people have been without the possibility of communicating with others, outside of their immediate circles of influence or friendship, away from their physical presence? It is certainly a fact, as far as I am concerned, that our modern day society would be far poorer if we did not have the opportunity to read and enjoy words written decades if not centuries ago. But, of course, we are talking here about our own times, about our own feelings, even if they do mirror those of countless of our predecessors across the entire globe, and since the first scribe put characters down on a moveable surface capable of being shared with others.
I suppose the point I am making, which is not necessarily clear, is that we have a means at hand, verified over many years, to alleviate some of the forms of loneliness. There will never be a chance to rid ourselves of the dread of loss, as one or another of our friends moves on to a new world, a new life with all that it entails, and leaves us behind. There are some things which we simply have to accept as being a fact of life, and broken promises to stay in touch, to be and remain a friend forever, are amongst them. There are some things which we can take into our own hands, control as we wish, and which, being personal if not unique and individual, bring a certain level of security and pleasure. To me, after many years of experience in this facet of our social lives, letter writing, the act of communicating through the written word, is one of the best means available. It is a little like talking to yourself, or that imaginary friend no one else can see, but knowing that, after a short spell, a reply will come from someone else who is talking to themselves. Why such a term? The beauty of letter writing is that the writer is literally – or has the ability to – put their innermost thoughts, feelings, emotions on paper, to express themselves freely and without any form of mental restraint, without interruption. In a face-to-face conversation, a debate or discussion, there is always the chance that the other person or people – some are so rude as to do it en masse – will interrupt and put their own thoughts and opinions forward without allowing us the courtesy of finishing our sentence. That simply doesn’t happen with letter writing.
Downside is that I, writing so many words here and not knowing you – as you do not yet know me – could really be writing simply for myself. Perhaps you have discarded this letter unread, have not managed to fight your way through to this justification for all my previous words. With letter writing, where there is no automatic confirmation that the pages have been received, let alone read, there is always that chance. But, at the same time, there is a certain something involved in writing these words, and the countless thousands I have written to many, many other people since I began letter writing as a serious hobby in the early Eighties, which is satisfying, which divests me of my own loneliness.
How, you may wonder, can someone who is on the outside, who has the freedom of movement and association I so desire but which has been denied me, how can such a person be lonely? It is this feeling when you are in the midst of a crowd, but feel as if you are on the periphery looking in. You are there, but not a part of it. Everything around you moves, but without communicating itself to you, and all that did once communicate, all that was once a part of you, has gone. It is there but, at the same time, not there for you. Perhaps one of the best ways to describe it is through the tale of a young child who has a best friend, works hard at the friendship, is always there for that friend through thick and thin, but doesn’t receive an invitation to their birthday party. Taken, of course, with the level of realisation and understanding we adults ‘enjoy’. Freedom of movement, the ability to travel, to explore, to do almost anything you desire does not mitigate loneliness in a social sense. It occupies your time and your mind, gives you fuel for thought, ammunition – in the best possible sense of the word – to communicate, but does not alleviate that inner emptiness. Surprisingly enough, letter writing does. Even though I am unlikely ever to meet up with the person I am writing to, even though we live in different parts of the world, have seemingly dissimilar traditions and customs, the act of communication through the written word, this unique and individual – intimate – conversation elevates the inner soul out of that feeling of loneliness, gives it cause and hope and, every time a letter arrives, a certain level of euphoria which, amazingly, lasts longer than you might otherwise expect.
And, sometimes, when you take a chance and pick someone out of the blue, you gain an even bigger surprise: a person who is capable of writing on the same level; who is interested in the world; who has knowledge of the past as well as an open opinion on the present; who does not shy away from discussion, debate, varied and various opinions on conflicting subjects; who has no problems putting their thoughts into words and down onto paper. Such chances, deigned and designed by the Fates alone, are few and far between, but they are there, and that is the hope I entertain, to find the right person, each time I set my words down on paper, each time I address an envelope, and consign it to the winds and ways of the world, to the four corners of this small, still green, mass of minerals hurtling through space.