For the first time in six years, I’m choosing not to live alone. Sharing a home with two other people has forced me to become more aware of myself and how much of a recluse I’ve become over the years. Early pandemic days, when everyone was talking about struggling in isolation, I was the asshole revelling in other’s misery, "finally everyone gets a taste of the life I’ve chosen for myself.” Life in isolation didn’t look much different for me, I’d been isolating for years. The only difference was now avoiding social plans was considered noble, instead of rude; I had social justification for being anti-social.
Within months, I noticed a general concern arise for people living alone. While this is legitimate for those with health conditions, I was bothered by what this concern implied for everyone else—single people living alone must be lonely. It was a sore reminder of our cultural preference for relationships—ironic, given the heavy value we also place on individualism and self-sufficiency. We grow up yearning to leave the family home and achieve success on our own merit without being “tied down,” yet we’re simultaneously taught that happiness comes from having a partner and building a family, rather than being alone. Isn’t being lonely in a relationship worse than being lonely alone?
Perhaps part of the reason solo dwellers are so misunderstood is because we don’t fully understand loneliness. Dr. Vivek Murphy says it can be challenging to identify because it manifests as many different emotions. In older men, for example, it can look like sadness, withdrawal, anger, even aloofness. Tara Brach says it can appear as depression, anxiety or blame, “when we feel lonely, we feel rejected in some way and threatened by others; we feel shame because to ‘not belong’ translates to most of us as ‘something’s wrong with me.’”
Olivia Laing, in her book The Lonely City, describes feeling lonely as “being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” Hunger isn’t an exaggeration, researchers have begun to find signals in the brain that put the need for social interaction on par with the need to eat. “Humans can survive three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food and—according to survival lore—three months without companionship,” writes Emily Sohn.
Physically, it’s a state of heightened stress. The spike in adrenaline and cortisol boosts performance in the short term, but prolonged, loneliness creates inflammation that increases the risk of serious health conditions, like dementia (by 40%!). It’s when loneliness stretches over long periods that it does the most damage—said to be equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
“It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated and estranged,” writes Laing. “It has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.”
Another misconception about loneliness? That the elderly are the loneliest. It’s actually young people who feel most alone. One in five millennials in the U.S. have reported having no friends at all. You would think technology connects us, but it actually isolates us further, by minimizing physical interaction and misconstruing the reality of other people’s lives to make our own feel inadequate.
“It’s easy to see how the network might appeal to someone in the throes of chronic loneliness, with its pledge of connection, its beautiful, slippery promises of anonymity and control. You can look for company without the danger of being revealed or exposed, discovered wanting, seen in a state of need or lack. You can reach out or you can hide; you can lurk and you can reveal yourself, curated and refined.” – Olivia Laing.
Technology is an alluring salve, one that’s arguably been essential to surviving in quarantine. The longer I went without seeing people last year, the more I noticed myself sending DMs and posting stories to Close Friends. I think it’s human nature to want to share the happenings of each day with somebody, otherwise life starts to feel muted. The problem with sharing via our screens is we become misled into thinking we’re seen and heard, when in reality, the response is almost always hollow.
“I wanted to declare my presence, to notify the world that I was still there, even if I’d almost lost the art of speech. I wanted to look and be seen, and somehow it was easier to do both via the mediating screen. The miracle of laptops and smartphones is that they divorce contact from the physical, allowing people to remain sealed into a private bubble while they are nominally in public and to interact with others while they are nominally alone.” – Olivia Laing.
Now that I’m with company, I can look back on my time alone and see the signs of loneliness; how I turned to technology as an empty, quick fix. But am I any less lonely now that I don’t live alone? And could it be that loneliness might have some benefits?
Stay tuned for my surprising conclusion next week.
💻 COVID cures for loneliness.
🧠 And if the pandemic has you feeling like your brain is broken, you’re not alone.
👃 One silver lining to COVID-19, we’re finally paying attention to our most neglected sense.
🏆 The Golden Globes are one of my favourite nights of the year—here are the biggest snubs.
🥖 If you’re as pissed as I am that Emily In Paris received two nominations, consider how season two would look like if it was directed by David Lynch.
📸 These portraits of Black female professionals by Endia Beal interrogate the acceptance of Black women in white collar environments.
🎬 The lies Hollywood tells about little girls, according to Mara Wilson. The Matilda star had me at the first sentence, “I spent my 13th birthday locked in a hotel room in Toronto.”
🎤 And Tavi Gevinson.
“Being considered ‘in your prime’ is not a position of power, the deceitful notion that you have power because you’re desirable centers male desire, rather than your own pleasure. ‘In her prime’ hurts men, too, by teaching them to see women as commodities and to define their own self-worth according to what they can obtain.”
🍱 On why it’s problematic that the smelly lunchbox is the classic childhood immigrant food story. “The story of being bullied in the cafeteria for one’s lunch is so ubiquitous that it’s attained a gloss of fictionality,” writes Jaya Saxena.
🇵🇰 Do you realize how much of the Indian food you eat is actually Pakistani, or Bangladeshi? Mahira Rivers writes about the erasure of Pakistani food for Whetstone.
The Golden Globes are tonight! I loved Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night In Miami (Amazon Prime): the imagined tale of what happened the night of February 25th, 1964, after Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston and joined Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke in a Miami hotel room.
I appreciate that we’re shown these icons in a new light, as human beings. While not much happens (the insular quality of the film feels fitting for lockdown), the magic lies in what is said. It’s, as NY Times T.V. critic A.O. Scott describes, “an intellectual thriller; crackling with the energy of ideas and emotions as they happen.”
What is the role of Black celebrities in cultivating change? This is the heart of their debate.
“Fame, which provides each of them with opportunities and temptations, comes with a cost. The fine print of racism is always part of the contract. What Cooke, Brown and Clay share is a desire for freedom—a determination to find independence from the institutions that profit from their talents. Malcolm urges them to connect their own freedom with something larger.” Writes A.O. Scott.
The percentage of people living in multigenerational homes has been on the rise since the 1980s, and COVID-19 has only accelerated the trend. So why is there still such a negative stigma about living with your elders? “More than half of young people are living with their parents, they can’t all be losers,” says Stella Bugbee, host of The Cut podcast.
This episode interviews people who live with their family both out of necessity and out of choice. One woman feels this belief that you have to set off on your own to be successful is racist towards her Indian culture which values multigenerational households. Another woman describes the benefits of raising her child with her mother: she learns from her mom and her mom gets to witness her grandchild grow up.
“It’s not a fall-back choice, it’s just a different choice, that all runs contrary to this American belief that there’s something better about living far away from where you’re from,” Bugbee says.