The Modern Problem: How to battle everyday loneliness – GUEST POST by Caroline Hardaker
We’re thrilled to welcome back Caroline Hardaker!
To celebrate the release of her latest novel Mothtown, Caroline has written a piece on battling on loneliness. Before we hand you over, let’s find out more about Mothtown, illustrated by Chris Riddell and out today from Angry Robot:
David is growing up in a world where something is very badly wrong but everyone is protecting David from knowing what it is. People are going missing, bodies are showing up with wings, or bones in nests if you believe the rumours from the kids at school. David doesn’t really know because his parents turn off the news whenever he might get a handle on what is happening around him and his older sister just doesn’t seem interested in sharing. Most importantly for David the centre of his world – his grandfather – is gone. His parents say he is dead but why is his grandfather’s backpack and jumper missing from the house? Alongside this we have a man abandoned in a hostile landscape and trying out run nature itself to get back home with some information.
You can order your copy of Mothtown on Bookshop.org
The Modern Problem: How to battle everyday loneliness
by Caroline Hardaker
It’s been a strange few years. Since the pandemic began, society has been dismantled, archived, and pieced back together. Individuals had to hide away, only emerging when there was a new world to face. Many of us had been through hardships. Lost people. Become isolated. Many longed for the safety of their snail-shells more than an open door leading to an uncertain future.
Inside, we had changed just as much as the world had.
Recent research has shown that overall levels of chronic levels of loneliness – where people feel lonely often or always – continue to be at higher levels since they grew during the pandemic. But Covid-19 isn’t the only reason for this increase. Demanding lifestyles, the roles we play to survive, and an expanding global village all have a part to play, too,
Loneliness is explored in both of my recent novels, Composite Creatures and Mothtown. Both Norah and David feel ‘apart’ from their neighbours, walking the streets as aliens in their communities. In fact, isolation is a key contributor to Mothtown’s ‘modern problem’, a mass exodus of people who long for another world.
But why is loneliness so rife, today more than ever?
Aftermath of the pandemic
In the last few years, most of us have experienced isolation, loneliness, and unwanted solitude. The recent pandemic meant that we all had to secret ourselves away in our homes, and connect with loved ones via a screen, if at all.
For many, life has returned to a version of ‘normal’ that allows for hybrid communications; we can see our friends again, but video calls are also here to stay. We might work from home but also visit the office for team meetings. Being flexible about who we see and how we see them has given many a newfound work-life balance, and a sense that we are more in control of who we let into our little worlds than we’ve ever been.
But there are still many members of society who feel trapped. Those who are vulnerable are often still alone, unable to experience the freedom they had before. And if they’re older, chances are that they may not even have the technological means to communicate digitally. These people are in danger of being left behind as the world evolves and society evolves with it.
A world of masks
The important role that face coverings have had since the pandemic aside, we live in a world of masks. We always have.
The metaphorical masks we wear in each area of life vary widely, from home, to school, to work. We exist as a host of characters, which sometimes only becomes apparent when our different worlds collide. In my first novel, Composite Creatures, Norah feels as insubstantial as a shadow. As the novel progresses, we witness her performance from beneath the masks she wears at work, during the interview process for the exclusive society she joins, and even with her friends. These faces somehow help her to live, while simultaneously cutting her off from those around her. Her authentic self is only known to her, in the darkness of her bedroom.
Alternatively, in my recent novel Mothtown, David imagines those around him wearing masks. It blinds him to peoples’ real thoughts and motivations, even if they’re family. Try as he might, he can’t even imagine what lies beneath their masks and so fails time and time again to connect with their ideas and actions. This is a key trigger for his spiraling into a world of his own, in which up is down, and down is up. David feels like an alien, in a land where he cannot speak the language or even see his neighbours’ true selves.
Technology vs touch
In an attempt for connection, David searches for truth through the Internet, becoming involved with the Institute of Homefinders. And just how many of us connect with our friends mainly through digital platforms on a daily basis? While instant messaging is incredible for its ability to help friends living thousands of miles apart to communicate, it very easily becomes a substitute for real human connection.
Technology is an easy tool to overuse, when busy adult lives mean rushing from work to family life and everything in between. But there is such value in time, in physical touch, and being in the presence of the people we love.
Research has shown that physical touch can reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and help us to feel calmer and less stressed. Touch reduces the release of cortisol and even seems to have a beneficial role in our immune response. Touch can strongly transmit a sense of being accepted and cared for and can reduce a sense of loneliness, whether it’s a full bear-hug or a gentle touch of the wrist.
The downside of a global village
We’re fortunate to live in a world with possibilities at every turn. Friends move away to pursue careers or to trek across continents. Families settle down in faraway towns that meet the future they see for their children. And with options to travel by rail, road, or sky – we can visit, connect, and build new memories together from time to time.
But the closeness isn’t there. Having someone to turn to for help at short notice is more difficult, especially if you yearn for physical connection (no screens allowed). We live in a global village, and though digital connectivity has never been better, physical closeness is at an all-time low.
Moving regularly for work or opportunities also means that we’re far less likely to know our neighbours now, too. A sequence of temporary addresses and short-term residences can mean a wordless existence in shared apartment blocks. David (in Mothtown), lives in a rented flat in an apartment block full of faces he doesn’t recognise. Soon, it begins to feel like he is living among a different species, never quite understanding the posters in the lobby, or even the schedule of changing the entrance code for the building. The result of which is his frequently being locked out, waiting for a resident who knows the code to let him in.
Communication and connection
So, what can we do to help others like Norah and David? How can we help to turn the tide of loneliness?
The answers lie in communication and connection. These are the secrets to draw souls closer. When communication suffers, understanding suffers. Relatability suffers. We can’t share our true selves, and neither can we let others into our worlds. We need to keep talking, sharing, and dreaming together. We need to hear human voices, not just read words on a screen. We need to bounce off the intonation, read facial expressions, and dance to the rhythms in speech patterns. And we need to know that others are doing the same to us, and not just taking our words at face value.
But we need to connect in person, too. Offer quality time to others. How different David’s life might have been if someone, anyone, had reached out to him in his lonely flat sooner, offering a hand to hold or a shoulder to lean on. Meeting others in person, visiting their homes, or venturing out to new places together helps to connect us with others, all while connecting us with ourselves, too. We may need our masks to survive, but sometimes all it takes is a physical connection to help us lower them, revealing our authentic selves to all.
Caroline Hardaker is a poet and novelist from the northeast of England. She has published two collections of poetry, and her work has appeared worldwide in print and on BBC radio. She is Writer in Residence for Newcastle Puppetry Festival and is currently collaborating with the Royal Northern College of Music to produce a cycle of songs to be performed throughout the year. She lives and writes in Newcastle.