Friday, March 20, 2009

A History of Loneliness

“We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone.” - Orson Wells

I received this sms at 1am from my girlfriend this morning: "Noudat ek jou blog gesien het besef ek eers hoe alleen jy is./Now that I see your blog I realise how lonely you are."

Probably she meant this video...which I shot of myself the same day I'd been stung by a bee.

Although she and I have been together for 5 years now, we remain apart - at least geographically, and this has defined most of our relationship. When I received that sms though, I reflected further and deeper into my past and I realised with a pang for how long I have shouldered a sense of dark loneliness.

I think the last 10 years have been a particularly lonely period, coinciding with leaving university and travelling to England. That year, 1998, represented the end of a golden age for me - when I was strong triathlete living it up at university with a string of beautiful girlfriends. In 1999 it all changed - I gained weight, lost my hair, my girlfriend and best friend and I broke up, and I remained in England. It was probably the most difficult year of my life, much of which I spent working or otherwise in voluntarily exile (from housemates and from the world at large).

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta

I remember some very agonising days and nights; I remember considering going on antidepressants. I spent several months dredging the depths of my despair by writing a book about my recent life. It featured a man alone, adrift on a sea, starved and exposed, and eventually rescued by a helicopter, resuscitated. It involved painful downtime trawling through emails I was never supposed to see, rewording them, re-examining them, putting them on display like jamming the heart in a jar reeking and discolored with formaldehyde. It was a brutal journey, but I came to know what my mother must have experienced, and when I wept in those months many tears were for her. I completed the book and in a sense, turned the page on a dark night that I had lived through, examined and analysed, brooded over, chewed on its bone until the raw white skeletal form was all that remained.

All of this transpired in Bristol. While I had started off living with 4 student ladies on the upmarket end, it soon became just me in a small cubicle on the first floor of a Bath Road house. I had virtually no contact with the cocaine snorting tattooed trucker next door (who was twenty if not a teenager). I sometimes had the kitchen worker from downstairs visit me, usually after a visit to the Escort Agency at the bottom of the road. He'd gush over the fact that he thought one of them 'really liked him'.

There were some bleak moments amongst the highlights - I visited Scotland a few times, and Ireland, travelling alone under bruised skies and partial eclipses, noticing virtually nothing. A friendship I'd established in South Africa with a Cambridge Zoologist - 10 years of frenetic correspondence, letters as thick as books - was shipwrecked almost immediately upon my arrival in England. She had an abortion and I had understood none of it.

In the end, I simply carried on...and over time, gradually began to assemble my life together again. In time, this gathered momentum. I began reading books like The Road Less Travelled and 7 Habits of Highly Effective people, and began to know and love myself once more. I began to feel inspired.
“Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.” Dag Hammarskjold

I returned to South Africa and began to emerge from this during a postgraduate diploma at an advertising school in Cape Town. Advertising students are not only the most social of animals, but the most devious and disingenuous. It was while watching Disclosure recently that I remembered how a lecturer had flirted with me, and when I had indicated I was not necessarily interested, she'd accused me of sexual harassment. You can imagine how this tends to propel one back into a world where you'd rather be in your own company. I'm not going to cite all my bad experiences, but there were numerous instances where my trust (the incidental trust one has for one's colleagues) was betrayed.

There is also choice; it is no accident that I enjoy sports like swimming, and cycling (more particularly time trialling) and triathlon. All of these are very lonely sports, if not the loneliest. I've enjoyed team sports, like soccer, but there is a different thrill associated with going it alone. I guess it is personal power.
Another thing I've noticed in teams is if you are too much better than your peers (for example if your writing is so good you're asked to dumb it down, if you're the only one with a notebook computer, you're the only one who has figured out what a blog is or how powerpoint works etc etc) people choose rather to resent you than to embrace you, or to learn from you. Some, not all, but most.

I realise now that one of the main reasons why I prefer my own company is that I find that I trust virtually no one, not because there is some flaw in me but because so few people these days are trustworthy. Sorry - I live in a world where if you say something you do it. Many people talk and they're fine that talk is cheap. If what you say is cheap why should I trust you? I mean look at advertising that has lied to us over the years. Advertising is the bullshit that comes out of the arse of commerce - and we're expected to eat it (and most of us do). And then we learn to 'advertise' (misrepresent, manipulate to others in order to make more money or get more of something based on a false pretenses).

Those I do trust I trust in a shallow manner (because this is the manner in which they trust and behave). I'm not a shallow person by nature, which makes having these sort of shallow friendships and/or relationships difficult for me. I have those artisitic impulses that make me particularly sensitive to what people say, and so one starts to decipher what people really think, what their intentions really are, through their actions. That can be very painful, because the realisation comes when you're alone and it is insulting, sometimes, to work your way through the advertising and come up with the unremarkable intentions of so many.

It may be convenient to say then that 'bad experiences' have made me, over time, into something of a hermit. No, thinking back I realised this has always been the case. I referenced the sport that I do - that's a choice I make, even today. At nursery school I started off in the art room, and for weeks would sit by myself and only paint. And I loved it. My mother and the teachers worried and after enough pawing and prodding I began to venture out into the playground and socialise. I became one of the loudest children there, so much so that I was dumped into the nursery school play where I had to shout, in front of a large audience, "HERE COMES THE KING, LET'S RUN AND HIDE."

At about the same time I started swimming, and school. Crazy as it may seem, I started school with the same painfully shy trepidation as I'd started nursery school. I was incredibly intimidated, in part because I was one of the youngest in my class (turning 5 years old in the first week, whilst most of my peers were 6 or more). After two tearful weeks I finally adjusted, and then excelled, once again loving art, and writing, and swimming.

It occurs to me now that even then I could depend on drawing pictures, scrawling incursive letters and swimming laps for results. People were a different gamble altogether.
I made friends quite quickly in those first months, some of which remain to this day. One friend I made was with a girl, and after some weeks I invited her to my home and she'd agreed. It was only once I'd thought it through, and how my brother and parents would likely react (making me feel humiliated) that I quickly called it off before our parents picked us up.

“Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better.”-Henry Rollins

Although I had an incredibly happy and vivid childhood, this was followed by a turbulent and traumatic adolescence. I probably watched far too much TV, became a voracious reader, and gradually, I wrote more and more. The more I read the more I started writing, meaning that during weekends I would often be sitting beside a typewriter from a friday afternoon until early monday morning. It grew worse - this addiction to letters and words. I remember finishing a 2 year epic I started at 15 years of age on the morning of a Final Science Matriculation Exam.
Even then I was somewhat disconnected to reality, and becoming increasingly antisocial.

I realised this, and was determined after my mother's death to divorce myself from the hypothetical (and almost entirely theoretical) universe that is writing, and fiction. Going to the Air Force helped. Here the same scenario repeated itself - of making friends, but later withdrawing. In the case of the Air Force there were 2 key events that defined that period. One - a car accident, which was preceded by my feeling it the night before, and writing a poem about bears roaring and crushed and collapsing steel staircases. Two - while on weekend leave my locker was broken into and my 2 year epic was stolen with the contents.

I was overcome by the fleeting magic and mute and tragic hopelessness of life and effort. During that time I also struggled to answer the question: what should one do with one's life. Even then I couldn't rationalise the avarice I was seeing around me. I wanted a more meaningful existence - I could feel the moral decay, and sensed that the centre of our society could not hold. I experienced this firsthand from people, who demonstrated little honour and integrity, and in myself - as I began to feel closer to things and ideas than to people. This was disturbing.

“Language... has created the word "loneliness" to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word "solitude" to express the glory of being alone.” - Paul Tillich

It was while in South Korea that I finally learned to enjoy solitude. I read a great deal, and exercised, and transformed my body into a machine capable of doing the Ironman, and my mind into something capable of dealing with the cold winds from people's lips. I would have been fine except I began to have relationships at this time, which drew me out of my fortress. I met a beautiful, intelligent young women in Singapore, but this propelled us into a long distance relationship which moved me over the cold wastes unburying the scabs and sores and bruises I'd put to bed since leaving England. The wind chill factor tore at me. I began to write again - a refuge and release when the person you wanted to talk to was across the ocean somewhere.

So I see the trends shift, but they haven't changed.
I recognised in Korea that I had the gift, or the curse, to write.
What has been unbearably worse than choosing to give that gift airing, and time - has been offering written work to other people. I've been very successful in some of my efforts, but ultimately remain an unpublished author of at least 6 novels. Works that took half a year or several years to complete. This is hard to rationalise. One asks oneself - do I go deeper, become more lonely, become a master at this craft, or step back into the world and join the throng of living. The risk of the former is to give up further chunks of time and have those investments betrayed by someone who simply doesn't understand the effort or the expense (and who knows, perhaps it wasn't good enough). To risk the latter is to lose all that has already been invested. It is something the world faces now, not just me. I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle. We need to balance the living with the dying, discipline and sacrifice with joy and abandon, loneliness with solitude, socialising with inner healing.

In the end we learn - probably - more about ourselves and the world through our relationships with the world and those in the world. But we have to go back into the stillness to know and live out some of those lessons.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A beautiful story/letter...Tonight ,I was feeling that terrible aching loniliness ,you only get after many years of bruising encounters and lost damaging love relationships...
Its somehow comforting to know there are others ,travelling the same sad roads...