Yes, we have now a Minister of Loneliness in the United Kingdom. No, we need not be surprised. This is the world we are living in; loneliness is everywhere; and it is not far away when even the Government of India would begin to think of such a ministry.
Loneliness is not aloneness. There are moments when we wish to be alone; and in the state of aloneness we are not empty or deserted; instead, we renew our inner resources; we contemplate, and with absolute mindfulness we walk, we see, we talk to a bird, a mountain peak, a river… Aloneness has its own poetry and music. And it is not altogether impossible to be alone, even when we are working in our offices, or buying things in a market.
However, loneliness is a negative and painful feeling; it is an experience of being dejected, separated and betrayed. There is no love, no human touch, no assurance that someone comes, touches your head, and enquires – honestly and deeply–about your health. In aloneness you realize the treasure of your ‘Self’-the Self that seeks to merge with the cosmos. But in loneliness your heart is deserted; you are wounded.
Well, sociologists and cultural anthropologists have often talked about the socio-cultural and psychic transformation that modernity has led to. From the intensity of face-to-face relationships in a living/vibrant community to an alienated existence in a modern/urban/techno-industrial society that has lost the warmth of a community, and reduced us into cogs in a machine. Or, some would argue that it is a shift from the over-arching ‘community consciousness’ to ‘individuality’ and ‘agency’. Yes, with modernity, as it is argued, there are more material comforts; and there are more expertized professional support systems. If you fall sick, there are mega hospitals, provided you can afford. If you are old, there are special ‘old age’ retreats with all the facilities; and if you have the money, you can hire a cook, a security guard, a caregiver and even a psychiatrist to take care of you. Yet, amid these material comforts and professional facilities, something deep seems to be missing. The doctor comes and prescribes the medicines; but where is the friend who just sits in front of you, talks about childhood and romance with football , and cracks jokes? Yes,the daughter from a distant land enquires about your health every Saturday through Skype; but the longing for having a cup of tea made by her remains unfulfilled.
True, we see people everywhere – in railway stations, in airports, in market complexes, in cinema halls, in housing societies. But the crowd is lonely. Anonymity, abstraction and contractual engagement seem to have surrounded our existence. Nobody talks while travelling in a metro; there is no notion of a neighbor with whom you can have an unconditional chat in a modern gated community; and in workplaces you realize that they are your official colleagues and competitors, but by no means friends.
Yes, loneliness is here. It is all-pervading.
Time, Speed and Techno-hallucination
I think we need to go deeper, and reflect on the way we experience time, speed and technology in contemporary times. Yes, the measured/quantified/fragmented time has become ‘disciplinary’ and ‘utilitarian’. The notion of ‘productivity’ that modernity generates and techno-capitalism further intensifies has made us terribly uncomfortable with time. Time dictates; time disciplines; time punishes. And we are repeatedly reminded by school principals, bosses, managers, traders, doctors and bankers that every fragment of time has to be utilized for ‘productive’ purposes. If your morning walk time is from 6 am to 6.40 am, you have to follow it strictly, and its ‘usefulness’ has to be demonstrated by reducing your blood pressure. Not solely that. If from 6.40 am to 7.30 am you meet an old friend, and spend the moment without any ‘purpose’, you have not behaved smartly. Because this is the time when you are supposed to see and respond to your emails. Everything is measured; there is no surplus time, no possibility of playing with time. Even though we all boast of using ‘time-saving’ gadgets, there is no time to talk to a stranger without any motive, no time to write to a long letter to a school friend. If a child’s coaching centre time is from 5 pm to 8 pm, it has to be followed strictly, even if after the monsoon showers your child feels like taking his grandmother for a walk. We are the prisoners of ‘useful’ and ‘productive’ time.
In other words, we are in a hurry. Yes, this fascination with ‘speed’ is yet another pathology of our times. With flyovers and expressways, cars run faster; the modes of fashion change quickly; gadgets, cars , computers – everything has to be ‘new’ and ‘latest’. This maya of speed–the neurotic urge to cope with this ceaseless movement and flow of things–seems to have killed what is needed for friendship, communication and unconditional relationships: a peaceful/non-utilitarian relaxed mind.
No, technology cannot replace the human touch. The irony of our times is that we love to be fooled by techno-hallucination. In the virtual world of Facebook/Twitter ‘followers’ and ‘subscribers’, there is no human touch, no embodied feeling, no responsibility to the other. And even the fascination with all sorts of ‘viral’ information often trivializes the art and intensity of communication. Messages, pictures, gossip columns, trendy news, fashion statements-things are disseminated fast, and forgotten faster. Nothing lasts; nothing remains enduring-the way one remembers the Himalayan peak one saw for the first time, or the fragrance of sweets one’s grandmother used to make. It is like the ‘surfing orientation’.
In the age of information pollution cultivated by these gadgets, the real information is often missing: what you are really feeling, whether your tears are oceanic in a lonely night, or whether you feel like telling a story to your child who seldom finds time because he is ‘busy’.
Loneliness is a price we have to pay for our ‘progress’.
Learning to Surrender, Learning to Care
Is it possible to come out of it? One feels tempted to be a pessimist. It is difficult to change the linear movement of history; it is not easy to come out of the trap that a market-driven/modern/technocratic civilization-with its gospels of ‘achievement’, ‘mobility’, ‘lifestyle’, ‘growth’ and ‘consumption’ has created; and it appears to be impossible to alter the priorities of life–friendship over possessive individualism, love over power, and relaxation over speed. The degree of loneliness will be intensified. Even if in our society, simple villagers–without any armour of ‘education’ and ‘position’-talk, laugh, meet, and share the moments of togetherness (even though at times, it becomes interference into one’s private space), the process of transformation seems to be irresistible. As the market enters, television channels invade the psychic domain, smartphones become popular, and new ambitions emerge, the villagers too would become like us–urban professionals burdened with inflated egos, and incapable of breaking the inertia of separation, and meeting or talking to people without any ‘official’ purpose.
Yet, I do not wish to give up, and remain a pessimist. I believe that, as the Ministry of Loneliness in the United Kingdom indicates, that we have begun to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem. And this is the first step towards finding a solution. In this article I wish to reflect on the need for psychic/spiritual transformation. First, I believe that it is important to learn to surrender before the very moment we live in–‘here and ‘now’. This is mindfulness. This is the ability to see eternity in this moment itself; this is to live deeply and intensely. Instead, we are in a hurry; we do not experience the present; we are only running after a hypothetical future. When we cherish the present moment, we feel ourselves connected–connected with everything: the flavour of the tea we are drinking, the sun coming out of the monsoon clouds, or the dearest ones looking at us with love. This connectedness breaks the walls of separation-the agony of loneliness.
Second, it is important to cultivate the ethics of care. This means the acknowledgement of the presence of the other. This is the beginning of a communion. However, brute indifference seems to have paralyzed our existence. We fail to realize that we are vulnerable; and none of us would like to be reduced into a soulless entity; to love, and to be loved help us to bloom. It is sad that with the normalization of surveillance in our times (how difficult it is to meet someone in a gated community as the CCTV camera, and a series of interrogations by the security guard make you feel that suspicion is normal, and trust is Utopian) we have become sceptical. We fear. We doubt. We do not relate. The world has become full of strangers,or, as the cops keep announcing, potential terrorists, rapists, murderers.”You are under the CCTV camera surveillance”–the reminder speaks of the world.
Loneliness cannot be overcome if we normalize surveillance. Because it is against the possibility of a relationship. It is against the spirit of care. Only when we begin to care, be it a tree, a river, a frail body, a neighbor undertaking chemotherapy, a woman who has just lost her husband, a teenager who has not cracked the IIT JEE, or a colleague suffering from sleeplessness, the meaning of existence undergoes a positive transformation. This is the beginning of love. Believe it, nothing, be it the latest brand of smartphone, the newly invented robot, the expertized ‘caregiver’, can replace the warmth of human touch–the touch of unconditional love and ecstasy.
It is for us to decide whether we would alter ourselves, or allow the horror of loneliness to paralyze us, despite all sorts of ‘progress’.