The point of ... loneliness

  • @alaindebotton
BEING lonely is frequently judged an extremely bad idea. Yet we should perhaps learn to appreciate the benefits that indirectly flow from this uncomfortable emotion. There would be no relationships without it. There are no greater romantics than those who don't have anyone to be romantic with. It is when we are in the depths of loneliness, without the distraction of work or friends, that we are in a position to grasp the nature and necessity of love. It is after a weekend in which the phone has not stirred, in which every meal was prised from a can and consumed in the unconsoling presence of a gravel-voiced BBC narrator - outlining the mating habits of the Kenyan antelope - that we can appreciate why Plato should have declared (The Symposium, 416BC) that a person without love is like a creature with only half its limbs.

Daydreams that arise in such deserted moments could hardly be termed mature, in so far as one associates the word with an awareness of the dangers of idealisation and romantic excess. On a train to Edinburgh, I am assigned a seat across from a young woman reading what may be a company report, sucking her way through canned apple juice. As we shuttle northwards, I feign a concern for the scenery (parched fields, industrial debris), while remaining glued to the angel. Short brown hair, blue-grey eyes, a set of freckles on the nose, a striped sailor top with a small but undeniable splash of what might have been lunch's macaroni. After Manchester, Juliet puts away the company report and takes out a cookbook. The Food of the Middle East. Concentration across her brow. Stuffed aubergines. Also, falafel, tabouleh, and something that looks like guruko which requires much spinach. Notes taken in curled, concentrated handwriting.

How little it takes for the lonely to fall in love. Or at least into the kind of heightened enthusiasm for another person that might be called love, but also crush, sickness or illusion depending on temperament. By the time the train is past Newcastle, I have thoughts of marriage, a house in a cherry-tree-lined street, Sunday evenings where she will lay her head beside me and my hand will comb her chestnut strands and we will quietly digest the Middle Eastern something-or-other that she made and I will at long last, and forever more and with infinite gratitude, feel that I have a place in the world.

Such moments punctuate the life of lonely people, unfolding without any outward sign, on the Edinburgh train, the lunchtime sandwich line or airport concourse. Pathetic no doubt, but vital to the institution of the couple.

We should be grateful for the despair of lonely people, for it is the foundation of future loyalty and selflessness - a reason, perhaps, to be suspicious of the romantically successful, whose charms have left them unacquainted with the tragi-comic process of aching for days for someone they were too shy to address and who stepped off at the next station.