Hell is other people?

Loneliness is a terrible state, of course, but speaking personally I have suffered far more from human company than from the lack of it. Hell, as Sartre famously remarked, is other people; but such is the capacity of the human soul for contradiction that so too, in many cases, is the absence of other people.

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper claimed that by 2030 1.5 million men over the age of 50 will suffer from loneliness. The article described the pitiable state of elderly widowers but there was an elephant in the article’s room: namely, that most lonely men over the age of 50 in 2030 would not be widowers, but rather divorced, separated or never married. Perhaps the reason for this particular elephant’s absence from notice was that its presence in the room was the consequence of the very model of relationships between the sexes that the newspaper has supported down the years: a loosening or total destruction of the marriage bond, easy divorce, fiscal equality between different ways of having children, etc.

But that is not what most caught my attention in the article. Rather, it was the following passage: ‘This matters because loneliness is actually a health risk,’ said Janet Morrison, chief executive of Independent Age [a charity]. ‘If you allow people to suffer from loneliness, it has the equivalent impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is as big a risk as obesity.’

Now it goes without saying that good health is desirable, but it is not the highest good. Loneliness is not bad because it causes bad health; it would not be good if, for example, the lonely could receive better medical attention that vitiated the harmful health effects of loneliness, desirable as that in itself would be. The healthy lonely would still be lonely.

I very much doubt whether the Chief Executive of Independent Age actually meant that the main or only reason loneliness is a bane is because it has an adverse effect on health, but that is what she said, or was quoted as having said. And this in turn suggests that we suffer nowadays from an unease in talking about what cannot be easily measured, such as life expectancy. If I say something that would once have seemed perfectly obvious, such as that loneliness is undesirable, someone will demand the evidence. Life expectancy can be measured; and we are inclined to believe that what can easily be measured must be more important than what cannot. The result is a lot of pseudo-thought.

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