“To achieve anything in life, you first have to make friends with loneliness.” This aphorism stuck in my mind when I delved into the subject of loneliness. Loneliness can strike without warning at any stage of life from childhood, to adolescence, middle and old age. Perhaps the most telling commentary of a child's utter loneliness is the Hindi film Taare Zameen Ke. In the film, Ishan, an eight-year old boy with dyslexia, has an immense talent for art and an endless curiosity about the world. However, because he is differently abled, he cannot keep up with academic pressures and is slapped with the painful labels of 'idiot', 'duffer' and 'lazy' by his teachers. Removed from other people, including his parents, he retreats into himself. Then comes up a fresh breath of air when a teacher (ably played by Aamir Khan) at his boarding school helps him to emerge from his acute loneliness and stand tall through his artistic skills. Alongside he helps Ishan improve academically through imaginative teaching methods. Eventually even his teachers are forced to acknowledge that he is not a complete write off but a talented artist and with an enabling environment-- has the potential to strengthen his learning ability.
From there a child makes a leap into adolescence with all its angst, loneliness, peer pressure and the necessity to perform academically. This period of life, when parents make unfair comparisons with better performers in academics or turn on the pressure to get unrealistic grades, causes havoc, low self esteem and a punishing regime which could in turn lead to a cycle of stress, loneliness and depression. Says Kalpana Bapna, director of Sanjivini Society for Mental Health,.”Yes we do get adolescents coming to us. Adolescence is a time of great stress and loneliness builds up as they feel that they have a lot of problems and nobody to talk to. Alongside they have to cope with hormonal changes and begin to interact more with the opposite sex.” The young ones, she asserts, are assured of confidentiality even from parents.
Come middle age and one has to face the 'empty nest syndrome.” Usually afflicting women when their grown up children leave home to pursue studies or take up a job, this period can be trying and lonely. Suddenly the parents are face to face with the realisation that the children may never return to the home and hearth except for the brief holidays. Mothers too have to come to terms with the stark fact that while their lives had hitherto revolved around the young ones, they now desperately need to find a new anchor.
Retirement poses its own set of challenges. Used to a busy schedule of timings and authority, many people feel an acute void in their lives. This can be compounded by the demise of a spouse. Life has never been the same since his wife passed away two- and- a- half years ago, says a retired army officer. While two of his three children live in Delhi, he only gets to see them on holidays as they are immersed in work. Of course, he goes on to add, he couldn't ask for more. One of his sons lives on the first floor of the house and is very affectionate, popping into seeing him before leaving for office and on his return home. Likewise, his busy daughter-in-law makes it a point to meet him everyday.
Failing health can be a major challenge for senior citizens. The former army officer points out that because of his failing eyesight he can no longer play a relaxed game of golf or drive his car. To dial a friend on the telephone, he has to ask his maid for help. Despite such irritants he looks forward to occasional trips outside Delhi, as when he went to Pathankot with his son for the 25th anniversary of his former J and K battalion or even to his farm, 70 miles from the capital city.
Loneliness and solitude are opposite ends of the spectrum. While the former is enforced on one and causes a feeling of emptiness, being alone or in solitude does not have to be so painful. Many artists, mystics, poets, writers, , philosophers, musicians, healers and saints, in fact, are at their creative best when they are solitary or alone. Among those who espouse aloneness are poet Emily Dickinson, film maker Ingmar Bergman and writer James Baldwin.
Says Baldwin, : The primary objective of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, avoid the state of being alone.'
Artist Madhoor Kapur, who specialises in post-modern realism, is a firm believer in the plus points of solitude :” After a period of aloneness I enjoy company more. I enjoy being with people when I want because it gives me stimulation and amusement. There is thus a contrast between having company and being alone and therefore I enjoy company more. Life is full of contrasts and that is what make existence so interesting. Aloneness is necessary to go into the inner self.” In fact Madhoor was at one time a familiar face at glamorous do's in Delhi, something which he no longer enjoys. As he says, “ I find my relationships are deeper since we meaningfully exchange ideas and do not engage in useless social chitter chatter.”
Going inwards of oneself seems to be a major goal for many people. In the words of Pimmi Bais, a school teacher, who is coming to terms with her mother's demise, “Though my family which comprises my husband and adult children-- does not want me to leave and be there for them when they need me, I want to be freeby which I mean the freedom to cleanse my soul, focus on my inner world and merge with the Almighty. I feel I have given enough of myself to the world and done my duty to the family, I now want to do a duty to myself. If I find peace I will travel and take in the wonders of nature.”
For some people solitary existence is akin to loneliness and many shun being by themselves. One homemaker says that she cannot bear to be alone and engages in frenetic activity to ward off loneliness. Another person, a shop owner, says that he does not like being alone and often has people around him. Though he does make time for himself through golf, music and films, this is only for a short spell.
“Loneliness gives you a sense of isolation; you feel very alone with all your burdens and problems,” says Kalpana. What then is the remedy? Though psychological help goes a long way, according to her, sometimes loneliness can be so intense that it makes for depression, “At that point we would refer them to a psychiatrist,” she says.
Loneliness is harmful for other reasons. According to a Reuters article which appeared in The Times of India, lonely people are more likely to get sick and die young, This is because their “ immune systems are haywire.” The article reports a study by Steve Cole, a molecular biologist at the University of California Los Angeles. “What this study shows is that the biological impact of social isolation reaches down into some of our most basic internal processesthe activity of our genes,” says Cole.
There are myths too about loneliness that need to be demolished. For one, say experts, it is not something that arises out of isolation from others. We can be lonely even in the midst of a crowd. The mind can never be at peace when it is living in the past with all its regrets or gripping fear and anxieties about the future. The antidote to loneliness say spiritualists, is not to look for external supports as a way out but embrace solitude where all external support is abandoned and we are face to face with ourselves.
So are you ready to make that transition from all consuming loneliness to the blessed state of solitude?
(R) thedailystar.net 2009