Olivia Laing's low point came when she couldn't close her blinds.
Living alone in a Brooklyn Heights apartment after her boyfriend left her, the author's chronic loneliness wasn't helped by the view from her window: a 10-storey co-op where she could see "strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours" and enjoying their dinner parties. The night her blinds wouldn't shut, Laing feared that her neighbours could also peer in on her lonely existence, eating cereal standing up or continuously scanning the Internet, her face lit up by her laptop.
"It wasn't by any means a comfortable experience," Laing writes in an incisive new book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, which traces those relentlessly isolating years. "If I could have put what I was feeling into words, the words would have been an infant's wail: I don't want to be alone. … I'm scared. I need to be loved, to be touched, to be held."
Loneliness remains an unspeakable, shame-inducing feeling, like "being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast," Laing writes. Through intensely candid memoir and deft art criticism, she tracks the "particular flavour" and stigma of loneliness in a big, modern city where we are surrounded by people but also are often alone and exposed in our solitude.
"So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability," she writes. "But why hide? What's so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness?"
More pressingly, Laing asks why, culturally, we avoid feeling uncomfortable things at all costs – why we're so driven to "constantly inhabit peak states."
The Lonely City is one in a fascinating canon of books about loneliness published in recent years. It includes Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age; Kate Bolick's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own; Eric Klinenberg's Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, as well as Toronto author Emily White's Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude. More recently, Rebecca Traister's new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and The Rise of an Independent Nation, interrogates the supposed loneliness of women who choose not to marry.
In her book, Laing defines loneliness simultaneously as a lack of connection to others and a communal state. More Canadians live alone than ever before, and current Canadian, American and British studies suggest that 25 to 45 per cent of the population regularly suffers loneliness. Worryingly, it has been linked in recent years to a host of health harms, from spiking blood pressure to compromised immune system function. Worse still, Laing notes that this isolation often perpetuates itself "like mould": When you're alone a lot it becomes harder to be social and so you see people less and less.
Laing proposes a seemingly counterintuitive antidote to loneliness. Instead of cowering in shame or hoping marriage will cure it, what if we actually sit in the feeling, paying close attention to it? What can it teach us? The Globe and Mail spoke to Laing from Cambridge, England about the values of loneliness – how it "cuts right to the here of what we value and what we need."
We don't attend church or devote many hours to volunteering; we work solo from home or sit in our cars in lengthening commutes; we put family off for work; we put meeting people in person off for swiping them around on a screen. Is urban loneliness more entrenched today than ever before?
The apparatus of modern life is incredibly isolating for people in lots of different ways. We're in a very atomized moment.
How is being lonely in a modern city different than being lonely elsewhere?
Cities emphasize two things: the way that you're not able to reach people and the way people can see you. The thing with cities is we are absolutely surrounded by people. We can see other people living richer, more populated lives than our own. At the same time, we can feel very exposed through windows and on the streets. There are a lot of eyes on everyone. That is why the loneliness of the city has a particularly distinct tang to it.
You argue that we are now "gentrifying" both our cities and ourselves to avoid feeling anything unpleasant, including loneliness. Why?
We're at a moment where we're very fixated on happiness. We've gotten very pain-averse. We don't like those feelings and we're continually told that they're not necessary, that you don't have to have them. But negative feelings are part of the human experience. They're not going to last forever. I talk about difficult things a lot in my books – I want to celebrate them. I don't want to renovate them.
Even more than depression, why is it so hard to confess feeling lonely?
One of the key feelings of loneliness is you want to reach out but you can't. The stigma around loneliness is so pervasive that people feel like they can't tell others, that it will drive others away. It feels like you're making a demand on people. That's how loneliness gets compounded. We have this weird magical thinking around loneliness – it's almost as if it's contaminating. I'm trying to dismantle this taboo.
Why, in the West, do we view being alone as a mark of personal failure?
We are obsessed with the idea of romantic coupledom as the absolute achievement. That's how we believe our lives should run. And it's shameful for people to have failed to achieve that.
Even though couplehood sometimes feels like the loneliest place? It's something Rebecca Traister examines in her new book, All The Single Ladies, noting that some marrieds will cocoon themselves away from the world. Traister said she was way more social as a singleton than when she was ensconced.
Marriages can be very lonely places sometimes. There are also moments where you feel very lonely with a group of friends. It can alight on us at all sorts of different moments in our lives. What loneliness best drives us towards is building a more richly populated life. Friendship can be an antidote to loneliness, rather than chasing all the time after "the one."
Let's turn to technology. Is it making us less or more lonely?
The Internet has the incredible ability to put people together but can be a very difficult place when you're lonely. I can waste hours drifting around on Twitter, but I'm aware if I'm feeling needy or craving contact. It's kind of like junk food: It's a way of getting a sort of contact that isn't really the contact we want. It doesn't have the depth and intimacy that we necessarily want. It's also a great way of avoiding ourselves.
You write about a "miserable rush of emotion" that hits us when we experience "virtual exclusion." What is that?
Virtual exclusion is the same thing that happens in a conversation. If somebody doesn't respond to what you're saying but picks up on something somebody else says, there's this little feeling of "Oh, I've just been left out." It happens online all the time. When you're on Twitter and you're not getting the favourites or the little moments of regard, it can create small charges of loneliness. These get magnified as people are more isolated. They get hyper-aware of it.
So what possible good can come from loneliness?
One of the most painful things about loneliness is the shame, but once the shame is stripped away and you allow yourself to think, "It's okay to feel like this," really what you're feeling is longing. It's an open-hearted feeling of wanting. I don't think that's a bad feeling at all. Loneliness can also stimulate creativity. There's a real acuity and an awareness of the world in it that can be very beautiful. Thirdly, it can build empathy with other lonely people so that we can feel solidarity towards them, rather than turning away or rejecting them.
How does one transform loneliness from an "infant's wail," as you term it so perfectly, into this richer experience?
It's about attention. Loneliness is an experience that you want to bring to an end. But hanging out in that experience, really trying to understand and feel it, it's like anything: It becomes much more interesting once you give it attention.
You mention the importance of "befriending yourself" in this process.
Loneliness can you make you turn against yourself so that you feel you're not a likeable person. There is a personal strategy against this, which is going easy on yourself, being kind to yourself.
Given what we now know about the adverse effects loneliness has on our cortisol levels, sleep patterns, blood pressure, immune system and life expectancy, shouldn't we work to cure loneliness, whether that's through tech or more integrated communities?
We could create strategies to improve people's contact, absolutely. But at the same time, none of the health studies have shown what, specifically, drives these feelings. I think shame is a major part of why loneliness is so damaging. I don't think we need to demonize the state in and of itself.
You believe loneliness can be political. How?
This is huge. We often think that people bring loneliness on themselves, that they're socially difficult. Actually, an awful lot of people are stigmatized or excluded based on race, sexuality, health and disability. The non-lonely are driving that. We all need to look at how we make other people feel like they don't belong and how damaging that is.
Do you continue to suffer loneliness, or were the New York years particularly brutal?
Loneliness is like weather: It passes through our lives. I'm sure there will be times when I'm lonely again. I can see people of my parents' generation being widowed or losing relationships and experiencing loneliness. Like joy, it's something that's there that we will encounter. It's about how we make those encounters rather than trying to dodge it lifelong, which is not possible.
This interview has been condensed and edited.