“Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone, and the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.” - Paul Tillich
John Donne states:
“No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
While browsing a book last night I was surprised to learn of some amazing statistics that related to people living alone. These were culled from an advertiser’s handbook - and I have a great respect for such handbooks as they reflect exactly what is going on and who is involved (billions of dollars of profits are made by advertisers who have to know intimate details about how we live our lives and what makes us tick). It seems that a growing trend in Western countries is the single-person household. Part of being human is the need and desire to be in intimate relationships and yet our society is constructing situations and pressures where being solitary is the easy option out.
In 1950 about 3% of the population of Western Europe and the USA lived alone. Currently in the UK seven million adults live alone (which is three times as many as 40 years ago). Estimates by “Social Trends” (a publication considered to be a bible of statistics) indicate that by 2020, one-person households will make up 40% of total households. In France, the number of people living alone has more than doubled since 1968. Currently, over 50% of households in Frankfurt, Munich and Paris contain only a single person, while in London the proportion is 40%. This is the situation also in Sweden with 40% of households comprising a single person. Since 1960, the number of German 25- to 45-year-olds living alone has risen by 500%.
Why should people in the USA in a survey say watching “Friends” was a major part of their social life? Amazing stuff! Watching TV on one’s own has become a surrogate social experience! The number of people who spend time alone in front of a computer screen is increasing dramatically as well. How many of us choose to talk to someone on the telephone rather than make the effort of making time to see them? What is happening to us all so that more and more of us choose to go it alone? All this so as to reduce our contacts with other people to a minimum?
In a consumer society it makes sense to minimise the number of people living in a household to the least possible – one… The more households one has to peddle goods to, the more the profits go up. One fridge is needed when living in a household of four, four fridges needed when four people each lives alone in a household. A person living alone can be more easily manipulated by media, has more dependency on solitary means of entertainment (TV, computer, radio etc) and is more amenable to all sorts of marketing ploys. A person alone relies on solely their ideas and their decisions are solely their own – this can often lead to impulses taking control and this can benefit the advertiser and the manufacturer.
The way that we interact with other people in our intimate relationships, the way that we view marriage, commitment, sex, love has also changed. People are less willing to put up with anything that is less than ideal in a partner. How many more marriages and relationships end simply because the partners are unwilling to compromise a little? It has suddenly become the norm to be selfish in all things relating to a relationship and to be completely non-negotiable in terms of living together and making concessions to the person sharing your life and household. Love has become more egocentric, and in a relationship one views the other person as an accessory to one’s own happiness rather than as an equal partner with exactly the same needs, rights and desires. People in a relationship often will find nowadays that living in two different households preserves this self-centred “balance” better.
What about the older person? Now that divorce has become more common and socially acceptable, how many more of these older people find themselves in a situation where they have been unceremoniously “dumped” and are forced to live alone? The nuclear family may well have been the aim of Western society and its adoption may have been almost universal, but what happens when this type of family undergoes fission? Its fragments persist after the explosion and each solitary piece travels outward in its lonely trajectory getting further away from each of its neighbours.
The extended family has many things about it that are far from ideal and there are some serious issues relating to individual freedom, personal choice, breathing space and being the master of one’s own fate. However, one of the good things about it is the support and intimacy it provides to each and every one of its members. There is always someone around to interact with, the sense of intimacy, companionship and unconditional love is something that one grows up with, and not only is given but one gives back too. It is more in touch with our tradition and history in terms of tribes and clans and age-old family groupings. Such a family structure promotes intimacy and social interaction and togetherness, but it deprives one of the glory of being in solitude, when one needs to be.
Which bring me back to the quote by John Tillich that I started with: “Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone, and the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.” Finding the balance in this modern day world living in a predominantly urban environment is difficult tightrope to walk on. Independence and interdependence must be juggled artfully and the way that we manage it will ensure our contentment. Loneliness and solitude are two sides of the same coin and we flip that coin too often nowadays, and risk losing out on the joys of companionship.