A short while ago, someone asked me whether I get lonely, sitting on my own in a street café. Reading my book while everyone else around me is chatting on their cell phones and doing all those electronic social things people do these days. Although I already knew the answer – no, I don’t get lonely with a book – I found it difficult initially to put into words: how do you explain to someone much younger than yourself, as most people are these days, that being alone and being lonely are two different things? I know from experience that a person can be lonely when they are in the middle of the best party in the city, surrounded by happy, shouting, singing masses, by fireworks, good food and drink at the buffet and nothing but surface pleasure to be seen in every direction. A person can feel as if they are on the very outskirts of civilisation, looking in, unable to enter, when they are standing on the main street at noon. Likewise a person can be alone, out in nature or, as with me, with a book at a single table in a street café, but not feel alone as a result. Michel de Montaigne wrote:
Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide! […] I find it measurably more endurable to be always alone than never to be able to be alone.
He had the advantage of a large estate in sixteenth century France, and used a tower as his refuge where, over many years, he put his thoughts to paper in Essays which, as you can tell from my quoting one, are still read by many today. And, of course, he is clearly seeking his alone time out so that he could write, which is certainly not a confession of loneliness exactly the same as my sitting alone at a table, no matter where it may be, reading a book is not either.
So, why do people see others alone and assume they are lonely? Is this a new social thing where you have to be with someone, where there has to be an activity crowded out with people all about you? Or do these people only suspect that someone alone is lonely, because that is what they are feeling themselves and do not have the right perspective level to appreciate it? I have rarely heard of anyone coming up to a friend or acquaintance in the middle of a party and comforting or commiserating with them in their loneliness. As a child I was always told I couldn’t possibly be lonely, because I had so many friends. A typical adult thing, of course, and one which I see through now, equating friendship with any form of quantity. I suppose the modern equivalent would be a person cannot be lonely because they have so many social media followers, so why don’t they go out and do something together? You see the joke behind the idea as easily as I do, I am sure; sadly not a joke we can laugh over. And we recall the words of Sophocles, who wrote:
In heeding nothing lies the sweetest life.
Not that I would wish this at all times, mixing with people is good fun when the moment is right, just not all of the time.
There are downsides to being alone, of course, especially when out on the town: those older men, shirts open to their belly buttons, gold chains and more aftershave than a Turkish bath attendant who slip their arm about your shoulders at an inopportune moment and ask how things are going, sweetie. I was in Bavaria recently, a saw a whole troop of these beings all together in one place, as if they had congregated in the belief that more is convincing, strength in numbers brings success. And it is always when you just want to be alone for a few moments, for whatever reason, and never when you’re lonely. I suspect some people can see the difference and, sensing something they don’t wish to confront, purposefully turn away, perhaps for fear of being infected or, more likely, having to be of some use in their lives for once. The solution to loneliness is not a whole mass of people descending upon you and trying to cheer you up, it is often just one person dedicated to spending time, to listening more than they talk, and just being there when it matters.
And, of course, having someone who is prepared to be there for you at the drop of a hat and bring a little patient and unforced cheer into your life. No amount of Facebook followers can do that for a person, and I am convinced that, when some of these modern social network users take the time to look up from their small screens, they’ll understand the difference. Unless they’ve all been brainwashed by the system, and then only you and I will remain and be sane, and rule the world. Maybe not.
Can you find solace in the friendship of someone you have never met, and probably never will? Someone who is very much older – for example – and writes strange letters which quote long dead philosophers and writers whose names are hardly remembered these days? Someone who declines the use of modern technology to keep in touch and believes in talking to people, writing real letters, reading books and drinking freshly brewed tea? There have been stranger things in life, I am told. Life is not, as we both know, simply a case of getting on the ride and enjoying it all the way through. There are bumps and obstacles, other people who disturb or disrupt, changes in direction and setbacks we could never have anticipated. Few things come out as we had them planned, and few people are out there to set us back on the right path in a manner which truly assists. Everyone has their piece of advice, perhaps well meant, but invariably cut to fit everyone a little and no one perfectly:
It is advice, moreover, which makes worse men of us
as Michel de Montaigne admits in one of his essays, remembering a fellow writer who had been much maligned in his own lifetime. I could quote whole swathes of text from this man, but then there would be no more letter writing, and I could simply send a copy of the book and add an occasional postcard with a page reference when needed. Not exactly the best way to stay in touch or build up a potential friendship, I feel.
The thing is, I am an old-fashioned letter writer. I take references and turn them to my own use, quotes which, in past times, other people would have recognised at once flow from my mind and through my fingers as if I had memorised them and was merely reciting off the top of my head. I delight in taking down a book from my shelves, leafing through it, finding a single sentence, and then writing a complete letter based exclusively – with many other references and quotes, thoughts and asides – on this one idea. My writing goes from the subject it is meant to follow down many different pathways, sometimes seeming to get lost and then, just when you least expect it, there is a link, a connection, and we’re back on the main highway again. Those who read my letters often manage to follow me, after a fashion, and several friendships have blossomed over the years, despite the challenges involved.
I’ve never felt so alone.
This was my sentence today: the sources of my letter writing inspiration come from many facets of life, of experience, of what we understand, appreciate, accept. In this case it is your words which made me pause for a moment and think, and then seek inspiration since, as I know from personal experience over many years, loneliness is a terrible thing to have to suffer, and the cure often comes from an unexpected direction. For me, in completely different circumstances, it was the contact with other people and the chance to just relax in good company and enjoy shared experiences. I had the advantage of being able to travel – at the time I was in barracks during military service – and slipped out most evenings to neighbouring towns and, at the weekends, into London for concerts, musicals, museums and art shows. In every other country I have visited since, and I began with this was many years ago, I have walked away from the usual, the accepted, the mundane and tried to find out what is in the side streets, off the beaten track, where the more eccentric people are. It isn’t always possible to meet them in person, as you can appreciate, but they are there nonetheless, and reachable.
By reaching out, even towards those places where you can expect no return for your efforts whatsoever, you gain a great deal: the sense of being alone disappears when you know that someone, somewhere, has had contact from you and has spared you a thought or two. And then, when they reply, when the mail call is halted for a brief moment so that your name can be uttered and that first envelope is handed across to you, then. I went to boarding school, hundreds of miles away from home, and received a single letter, each Monday, from my father. Almost without fail. When I joined the military I came to appreciate how important this small thread of contact is, for myself and for other people. All of a sudden you’re not alone: physically, yes, but not in spirit, and that counts a good deal more for some than having a person constantly at your side; you are able to separate yourself from the daily routine and move your thoughts elsewhere, to a picture which has been created in your imagination by words on a sheet of paper.
This is probably the strangest introduction you’ve received – and I do not allow myself the illusion of believing that you’ve not received any other letters – since it tells you nothing about me, in the normal sense of the word. At the same time, it says a great deal for those who read between the lines and who are looking for slightly more than just a piece of paper with words scribbled in haste sent out to fulfil a perceived obligation. The introduction comes as friendship grows: this is the way life is in the real world; there are very few people who, when first meeting one another in the supermarket, in a bar or at the local PTA, begin the conversation with a complete breakdown of who they are, when they were born and what they’ve been doing for the last several decades. We learn – hopefully the good things more than the bad ones – about people as time goes on, when we know what to ask, know how to interpret, know whether this is a friendship worth pursuing. When we meet people in real life, we are in the middle of our lives and simply take new acquaintances in as they are at that moment in time. Why shouldn’t letter writing friendships be the same? At least, that is the way I see it, and I am sure it is a very good discussion point for some people, and a thinking point for others.
Enough, perhaps, to say that I am an Englishman living in Germany with a long history behind me and, hopefully, an equally long future ahead who loves writing letters of a strange complexity in an old-fashioned manner and, it goes without saying, receiving them too. I’m always looking for ways to increase my knowledge, to share experience past and present, and to gain enjoyment through the simplest means possible at a gentle rate. There are those who prefer electronic communication, but I am not one of them. I believe that life is for living and for sharing, and the sharing can only come about once it has been lived, and that needs time. If someone spends all their time with their nose stuck to the small screen of a smart phone waiting for life to tap them on the shoulder, then they’re going to miss it all, plain and simple. And we cannot live our lives in the status updates of other people.
Which brings us in full circle once more, to my opening idea: that you can be in a crowd of people – as most are when they use social media and have thousands of followers – but still alone. Standing in the middle but looking and feeling as if you are outside. And who, honestly, wants to be that person when it can be avoided? The loneliness of the long-distance letter writer is not loneliness at all, it is friendship over greater distances through one of the oldest means of communication known to man which, hopefully, dispels the dark clouds of despair and emptiness each time your name is called at mail call, and always gives you something to look forward to.