The ambivalence of loneliness [Reflections on the Covid – 19 Pandemic] – Joke J. Hermsen

The ambivalence of loneliness [Reflections on the Covid – 19 Pandemic] – Joke J. Hermsen

The ambivalence of loneliness [Reflections on the Covid – 19 Pandemic]


Aerial view of Amsterdam, The Netherlands [VanderWolf Images]


The ambivalence of loneliness

And then, all of a sudden, we went into a long retreat. We closed the front doors behind us, we carried the shoppingbags upstairs, we filled the refrigerators with food and stayed inside our homes, for many weeks in a row, separated from our friends, collegues and family. This retreat was not chosen voluntarily by us, like a long meditation holiday in some expensive ‘Zen’ resort. We simply obeyed to the strong demand from our governments, who tried to get grip on the pandemic.

I remember standing on my balcony in Amsterdam, looking at a heartbreakingly blue sky above the houses; never had I experienced such a sharp contrast between this vital blossoming spring and yet another set of dramatic statistics shown on the news. There we were, in the middle of the outburst of new life, surrounded by the announcement deaths. We stayed inside and waited, wondering what is was we were waiting for: the end of the lockdown, another crisis to come or, perhaps, the opportunity for change?

While we were waiting, we discovered a new, ambivalent kind of loneliness. On the one hand this loneliness is close to forced isolation, imposed upon us by an invisible power, the virus, which frightens us and makes us feel insecure about our lives, because we do not know how long it will last nor how to overcome its dangers. It scares us, makes us worry, prevents us from sleeping, and worst of all could turn our melancholy nature into a chronic depressive state.

For we are melancholy beings, who at some point in our childhood become aware of the passing of time and therefore of loss, ephemerality and transience. This consciousness rests heavily upon our shoulders and deepens our melancholy with the years. If there are too many fears surrounding us, our melancholy has the tendency to become as black as the greek ‘gall’ it is named after: melan-chole: low and depressed. But luckily we also learn how to bear and ‘enlighten’ our melancholy with music for instance, or with stories, or an expression of love. We have to make it ‘creative’ in other words, in order to keep it a ‘sadness with a smile’, as Calvino wrote, and not a depression .

The past few months however we have been confronted with huge losses and dreadful scenarios. It has been extremely difficult to find any hope at all. The danger therefore exist that a large part of the population will become depressed, which is a very serious health issue, specially if it is combined with loneliness, as researchers like Stephen Houghton have demonstrated. Therefore we have no other choice then to keep looking for new sources of hope and inspiration.

The good news is there is some hope in loneliness itself, or in what we traditionally call: solitude. Solitude is a state in which you can focus on the interior dialogue with your self, as Hannah Arendt explained in ‘The Life of the Mind’ (1973). Even when we are ‘alone with our selves’ we still are dialogical beings, because we can talk with ourselves, we can think and reflect upon our own actions: we are ‘two in one’. If we are able to concentrate on hopeful, inspiring perspectives, we could find the possibility of this fruitful aspect of solitude. Where loneliness expresses the pain and fear of being (forced to be) alone, solitude expresses the ‘glory of being alone’, because it precisely unfolds new possibilities to connect with others. And this is a very important counterweight to our melancholy, or as Arendt puts it:

All thinking, strictly speaking, is done in solitude and is a dialogue between me and myself; but this dialogue of the two-in-one does not lose contact with the world of my fellow-men because they are represented in the self with whom I lead the dialogue of thought.


Joke J. Hermsen

[Amsterdam, The Netherlands]

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