Lonely in a connected world

Lonely and lost in the big city: it is a theme that has been appearing in Hindi film songs over the decades. Gulzar’s Ek akela is shehar mein (film Gharonda) is a popular example. Shahryar’s little known Seene main jalan ankhon main toofan sa kyun hai (Gaman) asks in the next line: why everyone in this city is so troubled.

Though romantic feelings hover nearby in songs of loneliness, these songs speak not about just a person or of love lost. They are about life where people are cut off from friendship or love, feeling adrift from all human connection – like an astronaut alone in the vastness of space. In today’s sprawling metropolis, one can indeed live for years in a housing complex as a stranger, or as it happens in the Mumbai local, one can be surrounded by people and yet feel utterly alone.

While people in villages too can feel lonely, cities are the epicentres of loneliness. Big city alienation has been the subject of study by social psychologists, doctors and criminologists as they examine from health, crime and public policy perspectives, the devastation caused by loneliness. So is the link between alienation and terrorism.

As people migrate for better opportunities and towns grow, as old ties of families and communities weaken, everyday more and more people join the swelling ranks of the lonely. “Look at all those lonely people…where do they all come from,” sang the Beatles in their classic, Eleanor Rigby.

Earlier, loneliness was something that affected the elderly – retired people suddenly without the comfort of a set routine, pensioners troubled by illnesses, aging parents whose children have left home to live far away, and widowers whose partners of decades are no more. The problem is also becoming acute, as the number of the aged grow in India. But it’s also the young in today’s times who are prone to the loneliness epidemic. Indian media has highlighted the dislocation and emotional turmoil of young people from small towns coming to cities in search of better opportunities, how they feel lost and depressed. Cut off from homes and familiar signposts, the daily commute, work pressures and the sheer impersonality of a harsh new city wear them down.

The grey cloud of loneliness settles over anyone, of any age or class. The successful professional in Vikram Seth’s great verse novel, Golden Gate is only 26 and yet feels miserable in vibrant San Francisco : “…Dragged from his cove, not knowing why,/ He feels an urgent riptide drawing/ Him far
out, where, caught in the kelp/ Of loneliness, he cries for help.”

In cities, children find their own unique ways to cope with feelings of being alone. Psychotherapist R. D. Laing has written about a child in a London slum slicing an earthworm into two, saying, ‘… there, now you have a friend…’ Recently, the British PM announced the country’s first Minister for Loneliness. A Ministry of Truth or a Ministry of Justice is usually the stuff of dystopian novels or dysfunctional dictatorships, fabricated for propaganda. So, in this age of spin, we should be thankful the British didn’t name it the Ministry of Sunniness or Gaiety to wish away unpleasant facts.

Obviously, they are serious, even as issues like Brexit and multiculturalism dominate their discussions. Based on the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, the government is planning to tackle the issue in all earnestness. The move is expected to help around nine million Britons who experience the misery of loneliness. Through this policy initiative, Britain is acknowledging a growing problem of both developed and developing societies.

Ironically, ours is the time of 24×7 connectivity when Wi-Fi is as essential as water for many. With our good mornings, endless jokes and motivational lines delivered non-stop on WhatsApp and Facebook posts, we are supposedly never alone. We love to lose ourselves in the bylanes and back alleys of the virtual world. And yet, in the middle of these distractions, do we feel lonely? Some of us find that our fabulous lives on social media make our return to real lives such a boring and lonely trip.

Pascal, the French mathematician and theologian wrote in the 17th century, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Probably he had in mind the destructive energy of the political class that sent rampaging hordes on wars and conquests. Today, we are immobile in front of our screens and yet we know the restlessness, the urge to be on the move, the feeling that life is elsewhere, the impossible wish to find that perfect antidote to boredom.

We can only wish UK’s Loneliness Minister loads of good luck. In the meantime, earlier answers to the problem, and many of them known to work, have always been around. They range from creating a sense of belonging, presence of friends and family to a nourishing community life and meaningful work. Companies certainly can take care to make workplaces friendlier and stable, discourage toxic behaviour from bosses and redesign work to make it interesting and relevant. They can also resist the temptation to be too helpful – like appointing a Chief Loneliness Officer or using big data to sniff out the lonely with the noble intention of helping those poor lost souls.

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