One, the loneliest number

November 28, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Anthony Carnovale

I love being alone; it’s something I need, crave and actively seek out. As a writer (and educator) I need time, space and silence to think, plan and create. For me, finding some alone time is just as important as any writing tool or book. 

Of course, spending time alone is not just about being creative. Outside of the creative process, being alone gives me a chance to breathe, to slow the world down. Spending time alone allows me to preserve my energy for teacher-life and parent-life; it gives me time to reflect, to get in touch with my thoughts and emotions; to do the things that I enjoy doing. I’m more productive when I’m alone; I don’t have to say sorry when I’m alone. I enjoy being alone more than the company of people. 

Of course, the idea of being alone changed when I got married. Before marriage, I took a few trips to Europe. I walked the streets of Paris and London, spending most days without so much as hearing the sound of my own voice. It was the same way I walked the streets and back alleys of Toronto and Chicago: alone. I was walking my way through places and spaces in the world, trying to find myself in the flow of time. 

I love being married; I love being a father. I love the expectations that come from living both  roles. However, it still hasn’t changed my desire to have alone time. Truthfully, I love when I see my wife and kids leave the house for a few hours. The house feels like an empty stadium after a rock concert; the silence is almost deafening. I know it may seem harsh, but that’s the writer’s life. If I was a hockey player, I’d be at the rink five days a week, on the road for many more. I need to write, and for that I need space and quiet. 

I often encourage people to spend some time being alone. Most people I know don’t like being alone. Most people I know have never spent large amounts of time on their own. Personally, I think this is a problem. I see far too many people following the traditional line of school, work and marriage without ever truly facing or learning how to cope with the one thing that is eventually coming for us all. 

I understand that my solitude is a choice. In reality, being alone for some people is a different experience from my own. For many, spending time alone can be painful. Think of recent arrivals to Canada; think of seniors confined to a senior’s residence; a student at a new school. For some, loneliness is despair, anxiety; loneliness is a fill in the blank question that never gets answered. Loneliness hurts.  

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nick Kristof cites a Brigham Young University study that claims that “social isolation is more lethal than smoking 14 cigarettes a day”.  The report also states that loneliness increases things like inflammation, heart disease, dementia and death rates. Loneliness is an epidemic in many countries around the world; Britain recently appointed a minister for loneliness. 

It might seem strange that in a world where one can have 753 friends on Facebook and 432 followers on Twitter and Instagram, that a person can still feel lonely. In the end, what matters is the quality of those friendships. The internet, in particular social media, was supposed to be the answer to that fill-in-the-blank question. Social media was supposed to bring people together; the opposite appears to be happening. In an age where we are connected like never before, people are feeling disconnected, anxious and alone. 

This is why young people are also feeling lonely. All of our online and social media interactions aren’t helping and may be making loneliness worse. A recent study of Facebook users found that the amount of time you spend on a social network is inversely related to how happy you feel throughout the day. 

Loneliness is something that worries Millennials: according to the 2016 VICELAND UK Census, loneliness is the number one fear of young people today, ranking ahead of losing a home or a job. The report also states that 42% of young women are more afraid of loneliness than a cancer diagnosis, by far the highest share of any generation. This fear has been ingrained into the very lexicon of Millennials, immortalized in acronyms like “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out).

In my grade 12 English class, we’re currently studying George Orwell’s 1984. Big Brother does a lot of things to maintain its control over the people of Oceania. One of the most effective things is to alienate people. In the novel, coming together, being intimate, feeling less alone, is a subversive act. The other day, one student wanted to share an Albert Schweitzer quote she found online: We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness. I see lot of 2019 in 1984.

This past Sunday, I ran a creative writing workshop at the Orangeville Public Library. The title of the workshop was “Writing is a Contact Sport”. The idea was to bring people into ‘contact’ with one another via the act of writing. At the beginning of the workshop, a few people admitted to feeling alone; some were afraid of ending up alone. It was incredible to see them share their thoughts, vulnerabilities and creativity with people they had only met a short time ago. It was easy to see that they were feeling a little less lonely. In a way, the session felt like a subversive act. 

A week before the writing session, local writer Clare McCarthy sent me an email with his thoughts about the theme of the workshop. With his permission, I’m sharing the email with you: As a recent octogenarian and writing about ‘Growing Old Isn’t for Wimps’, I have been in contact with many caregivers dealing with partners with dementia. I just wanted to make the point that at this stage in life the social aspect is extremely important to combat loneliness. Social contact for elders can be worth a handful of pills”. 

I hope I never feel lonely.

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