Some days ago, an ex-boyfriend shared a story from The Paris Review, called ‘Loneliness is Other People’. Of course, I thought to myself, who else but an ex would pick on my habit of thinking of people as both the cause of and solution to loneliness? After all, the gutting absence of people after an indelible presence is what that has defined my life — as it has for many others — over the last two months.
I read the essay with great interest, determined to make sense of the author’s painful declaration. I looked for myself in every sentence, looked for words and turns of phrases and a proclivity for attention and affection that would remind me of me. Yet, I did not want to see myself in a story about loneliness. “It comes, and it goes. What more do I make of it?” I said to myself, triumphantly. I was convinced I didn’t need to sit with my loneliness. It is not being lonely — I reminded myself of the overused, unimaginative adage — it is called being alone. I stressed on the word. I stressed, particularly, on the dignity of it. I had conquered an uncomfortable and undesirable truth by making it something I could desire and conquer. I refused to entertain any other thought or argument that would convince me otherwise. The stigma of loneliness, I decided, wasn’t mine to carry.
However, the mind is a strange little place. Every corner echoes with that which hasn’t been brought to justice. My mind is a shapeshifter. It turns itself into a courtroom, into the inside of a hospital room, into the streets and traffic lights of my hometown I forget about in the middle of conversation, and sometimes — when I resist the most — into a confession box.
So, I asked myself the difficult questions. In the middle of a crisis that has upended the idea of physical intimacy and made human contact so feverishly desirable, isn’t loneliness perhaps the most overpowering, all-consuming, overwhelming emotion? If loneliness is only inevitable, why have I always resisted it?
Perhaps because the acceptance of loneliness isn’t the end of it. Perhaps because after loneliness comes…more loneliness.
Illustration © Adrija Ghosh for Firstpost
I’ve often thought of loneliness like being washed over by the waves of the sea. It doesn’t recede as much as it sticks around like salt, burning in the sun, cooling down in the shade. It isn’t a cleanse as much as it is the acute awareness of how resistance isn’t the only way to address cruel, disconcerting, but inevitable imminent emotions.
Much of what the pandemic has taught us finds its roots in acceptance. Acceptance cannot exist in the absence of resistance. If there is acceptance, then it is almost always preceded by a fight. Loneliness, maybe, is one of the most widely resisted acceptances of unwanted quiet. It is imperative that we vanquish the feeling and erase it from our bodies. The only immediate antidote is the human touch. That is how we seek to be replenished, rejuvenated, re-routed to who we once were. We want to emerge victorious because what could be worse than being lonely? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything.
However, when the deprivation of this touch is the cause of loneliness, how do we find a remedy that is equally desirable and irresistible in its unattainability? We have now begun to resist people with a similar reluctance that we once accepted them with. We have begun to accept absence as determinedly as we once resisted it. Loneliness has become a battlefield — what desire do we act on and what desire do we leave behind on the field, hoping it looks out for itself?
As of this summer, we find ourselves facing a familiar enemy but fighting a different war. We look loneliness in the eye but have no weapons to raise. Are we guaranteed to be less lonely once the pandemic unfreezes the cycle of time? Or are we going to be more resigned to the inevitable, to the sudden, to the inflexible, to the rigid, to the sometimes fleeting and sometimes boundless waves of loneliness? Is touch going to be a reminder of what the absence of it can take away? Or is it a reminder of what the presence of it can give?
I come up with these questions faster than I can answer them. I settle on a different answer every time. Loneliness, I conclude at the end of a quiet week, is nothing short of a love affair. It feels endless and ephemeral simultaneously. It is conflicted, fought for, fought against, desired, and undesired all at once. It often disintegrates but never dissolves. There is a brief respite in knowing that it is possible to forget what loneliness feels like, but it washes over you every now and then — asking you to resist it, asking you to accept it — and finally, what the uneventful turning of days into nights into days, too, has demanded of us: asking you to live with it.
Sasha Mahuli is a writer and content-creator based out of New Delhi.