Very recently, I picked myself up and moved, not only to a new house, but to a new town, after 35 years in London.
My daughter has just gone to university and I am getting divorced. I am well and truly on my own. ‘Don’t you get lonely?’ a friend asked. Yes and no. I love going to the movies on my own, particularly in the afternoon, a truant schoolgirl in the back row eating popcorn. I like eating in restaurants, with a good book for company, and one of my greatest joys is sitting in a coffee shop with a cappuccino and a lemon muffin, watching the people around me.
There is something comforting about anonymity, about observing others or talking to people I have never met. The other day, I fell into conversation with a woman in my local newsagent. It turned out we were going the same way, and we walked and talked for five minutes. We may never see each other again, but it lifted my spirits to connect to a kind and funny stranger, and be reminded that the world, headlined by suspicion and violence, is not as brutal and unfriendly as we so often feel it is.
The older I get, the less capable I am of living with anybody. Some might say it is selfishness, refusing to give up habits (no, the coffee jar does not go there; yes, I always go to bed after the 10 o’clock news), but I think it’s more a question of understanding my limitations. I love people and I adore my friends, but only for brief periods. I am always happy to go back to my solitary state.
What I hate is the modern idea that solitariness makes you some sort of sad loser. I might love being on my own, but that does not mean I don’t get lonely. It is an existential or emotional loneliness that can catch me by surprise, even among a group of friends.
I have been lonelier in bad relationships than I ever have been on my own, and some years ago, a therapist said I was the loneliest person he had ever met. I had never thought of myself that way, but once I began to examine his words, I realised he was right. I was so self-contained, so fiercely independent and so determined to manage everything on my own that I pushed people away.
During a particularly bad period of my life, my closest friend said, ‘You are very hard to help.’ At first, I was hurt – until I realised I was hurting her more by refusing her kindness. We need to be needed, and it is an act of emotional generosity to allow somebody to help us. It took me a while (OK, years) to learn to open up and be more trusting. The more open I became, the less lonely I felt, which is perhaps why I am now prone to assaulting complete strangers with conversation.
According to research, feeling lonely is the number-one complaint of our age, but perhaps loneliness is more an emotional dislocation with others than the state of being alone. The more we are able to open up and connect, the less lonely we feel, but in a society that triumphs confidence and success, it is hard to show our vulnerability and make that connection. Experts point to a fragmented society and a lack of community as the source of loneliness, but it seems to me to be more a state of fear.
If we can overcome that fear and reach out to each other, we can put loneliness away.