A touching story to emerge from my state of origin (South Australia) this week is the tale of 75 year old widower Ray Johnstone and his advertisement for a fishing buddy. The story went ‘viral’, in the annoying, modern, idiomatic sense of the word; but this isn’t a post about grammar, thank jesus, it’s my gentle introvert’s rebuttal of the hysteria surrounding loneliness; often referred to as ‘the silent epidemic’ because just about everything these days is apparently a silent epidemic (including dementia, hepatitis, domestic violence, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, male suicide, alcoholism among flight attendants, and that documentary about vaccines on YouTube, just to scratch the surface). Anyway, here’s Ray the fisherman. I wonder if he enjoyed being labelled ‘lonely’ by the chattering mass?
My personally favourite definition of ‘loneliness’ comes from Frieda Fromm-Reichmann’s 1959 essay ‘On Loneliness’, which talks about a lack of intimacy. We all know how that feels, or at least can imagine it. Your heart constricts at images of little capuchin monkeys cowering alone in cages, of autistic big-eyed Romanian orphans, and maybe even the ubiquitous image of a perfectly happy older gent sitting alone at the bus stop now preserved for all time as loneliness personified. True loneliness is an awful state of being, but it must be contrasted with solitude, which is the delicious time we spend alone recharging our batteries. Loneliness, though, doesn’t matter how many uplifting ‘motivationals’ or pithy aphorisms they invent: it just feels like shit. Easily remedied shit, but shit nonetheless.
We are relentlessly told that humans are social beasts, so the thought of being alone is anathema. Psychologists love to point out the ‘proven link’ between isolation and any number of hideous illnesses. Maybe it’s true, maybe the unwanted life of a social leper does increase your risk of premature death by untold number of killy diseases; but let’s not overstate the link, either. I don’t need a university study to prove that almost everybody wants a balance between company AND solitude. And while we’re at it, where are the studies linking risk of certain death with too much company?
But yes, for sure, lack of intimacy is a genuinely horrible thing. It afflicts all of us at some point in our lives: the sudden yearning for a hug. If you grow up with physically undemonstrative parents, who maybe only touch you when they’re hitting you, then it would seem like a physical affront when some total stranger wants to hug you. Hard to get used to, but you grow to like it, like the tribesman from deepest, darkest Paupa New Guinea who’s not tasted chocolate before. Touch builds emotional connections between people: again, no psychologist here, but I suspect that couples who ‘drift apart’ in their relationships drift apart physically, then emotionally (then financially). I would posit that people who work to maintain regular, physically intimate contact with their significant others would rarely describe themselves as lonely, no matter how much time they spend alone.
Now, try finding a satisfying antonym for loneliness. I’ll credit ‘crazylegs’ at MetaFilter with the cleverest answer so far (‘Lonely people are blue, therefore the opposite of lonely is orange‘), yet this doesn’t satisfy. Doesn’t it stagger you to learn that there isn’t a formal opposite of loneliness in the English language? But if loneliness is a state of being, then so must the opposite: so, for me, that would have to be the state of overcrowdedness. Got knows there’s already enough noise inside my head without the world adding unnecessarily to it. But that’s the world we live in now, impinging always upon the private, and it does’t matter what Fakebook filters you apply, the babble keeps getting louder and louder.
But is ‘overcrowdedness’ satisfying? In the broadest sense, yes, but it’s hardly an elegant term. Even consonant words in different languages fail us. In German, it’s überfüllt, which sounds about as poetic as nails down a blackboard. In French, loneliness is of course solitude, but what’s the French antonym? Ça n’exists pas! In fact, I can’t imagine a single word in any of the Romance languages that would fit the bill, them all being deplorably extroverted peoples, and besides, English being the bastard-son lingua franca of the Western world, why should I have to go abroad for my antonyms! I just have to look a little harder…
So, after much contemplation, I have rediscovered an archaic English term that says everything I want it to say and nothing more. That awful feeling of being overborne by the masses, of being a helpless and hapless victim in a turbid sea of inanely and endlessly gibbering humanity, is perfectly encapsulated in the old nautical term ‘whelmed’. I feel whelmed. You looked positively whelmed, my dear. What a whelming day that was! Now, I know you’re all as excited as I am to add another word to your lexicon, but keep it quiet please. Don’t want whelming to go viral. Especially as the dumb people would confuse it with ‘overwhelmed’ anyway.