Michael Moynihan: Our current loneliness — it's of a different order to the old malaise

Michael Moynihan: Our current loneliness — it's of a different order to the old malaise

American researchers equated the effect of loneliness on one’s general health with smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

In the house I grew up in there weren’t too many idols with life tenure in the pantheon of heroes, but one ordinary man from Dublin never had to worry about his position in that hierarchy.

When you hear or read about how things were better years ago, back when society was more ‘stable’, or whatever trigger word or coded language is employed, you'd do well to remember Willie Bermingham.

Bermingham was an ordinary person who made an extraordinary difference to many lives, and those were lives which badly needed that difference made to them. 

In the mid-seventies, he and some of his colleagues in the Dublin Fire Brigade were so shocked by the circumstances they found elderly people living in, and dying in, that they formed an organisation to help those people.

Years later he could pick out the single incident that crystallised his response. 

In an RTÉ interview with David Hanly, Bermingham said: “In the latter part of 1976 and early 1977, I responded to no fewer than eight calls on a rescue tender to accommodations where, on each occasion, I found an old person dead.

“I found the eighth one was a man in a Corporation chalet on Charlemont Mall on the 19th of February 1977, and I just blew the fuse board completely. 

"I used some language — the four-letter type, you’d light Christmas candles off the language, it was that strong — because I was just mad at this continuing to happen, to happen so often in such dreadful circumstances.” 

Alone was the organisation he founded (it stands for A Little Offering Never Ends), but the reason I mention it here is not to give readers of a certain age a frisson at the memory of the TV ads they ran (nor, it should be stated, the negativity Bermingham encountered early on from the State's guardians of morality).

I mention it here because loneliness is not only one of the modern city’s great afflictions, it is quantifiably worse than in Bermingham’s time and afflicts more people across a wider cross-section of society. 

By that I don’t necessarily mean the increasingly closed-off elements of urban life: the solitary individuals on public transport, the phone-scrollers or ear-bud wearers you walk past every day, the studious avoidance of eye contact many of us practise as city dwellers. 

Nor do I mean the hyper-accelerated loneliness of self-isolation in the age of coronavirus, though if nothing else that virus has underlined just how flimsy the social bonds between us truly are. 

We have already seen the backlash against Zoom as a social outlet — linked, perhaps, to the lawsuits against the company for allegedly selling users’ personal data — because for all its technological marvel, it can’t be a social outlet. Not really.

But it can help us understand the depths of our new loneliness.

The city has always been a paradoxically isolating place. 

The readers of a certain age mentioned above — translation: my contemporaries, more or less — may remember a short story on the secondary English syllabus by O. Henry, 'The Green Door', which describes a lonely girl rescued from her dangerous solitude by a stroke of outrageous luck. (I always got a kick out of the fact that The Green Door was also the name of a cosy teashop in Cork, as though the proprietors were thumbing their noses at the fans of an obscure American fiction writer.) 

A century later Olivia Laing articulated the alone-in-a-crowd sensation better than most: “You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.

One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation.

“It’s possible — easy, even — to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others.” 

The Laing book that extract comes from is called The Lonely City. It’s not quite as snappy a read as O. Henry’s short story, but they’re both well worth your time.

What is particularly worrying about our current loneliness, however, is that it’s of a different order to the old malaise. 

Laing’s superb dissection of artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz shows how a creative imagination can take solitude in the urban environment, the very isolation from one’s fellow men and women, and yet make something entirely new out of the imagination: art.

What about those of us who aren’t creative geniuses, though?

What about those of us who are prey to forces which profit from a splintered social contract, from projects invested in global dominance through information, through prediction of our behaviour and subtle direction towards fulfilling that prediction in our purchasing and lifestyle?

That’s all of us, by the way. There are any number of guides to the very real threat of surveillance capitalism, not least the one written by the woman who invented that very term, Shoshana Zuboff. 

She has shown how social networks monetise our information through their data scraping, with one added confidence trick: convincing you that you are part of a wider community, when in fact people are more isolated now than ever before.

The evidence for this is all around you in the modern city — or not, as the case may be. 

Picture: Andy Gibson
Picture: Andy Gibson

The isolation involved in working from home contributes to the epidemic of loneliness in an obvious sense, but the closure of so many retail outlets empties the city even further. 

Nowadays the isolation is not a matter of self-sufficient units never interacting in the city; it’s more that the self-sufficient units don't enter the city to avoid each other in the first place.

The evidence isn’t confined to Cork, or Ireland, by any means. 

It recently emerged that crimes by women over 65 in Japan have quadrupled in recent decades because those women want to go to prison for the company while a couple of years ago American researchers equated the effect of loneliness on one’s general health with smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

When the virus recedes many of the fissures are likely to remain. 

The ‘gig economy’, with its exploitation packaged as flexibility, will continue to undermine opportunities and solidarity for and among the young people; for a neat counterpoint consider death notices for the older generation, which will often namecheck the voluntary associations and clubs those people had the time and energy to join.

Is there a remedy? The ailment is many-headed, but that’s no excuse for inaction. 

My eye was caught by an initiative in another city recently — not Stockholm or Melbourne, but in Waterford, which launched its ‘Happy to Chat’ seats earlier this month.

The idea is a simple one used widely in Europe. By sitting on the bench one indicates a willingness to chat with someone else who wishes to sit on the bench as well — a willingness to push back against the lonely city.

A small start? Yes. 

But people as diverse as Willie Bermingham, Olivia Laing, and O. Henry could tell you just how dangerous loneliness can be.

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