The data from an empirical study conducted by the Faculty of Well Being at the University Malta identify the different approaches used to define loneliness.

The Maltese translation of loneliness is solitudini, equivalent to the English word solitude. Even though there can be no qualms about the synonymity of these two words, solitude can feature in a different context and thereby expresses a different sense of a mental framework.

Wordsworth finds bliss in solitude because it sensitises him to that “inward eye” that inspires him to muse about the beauty of nature. Perceived through such a perspective, the solitude experienced by Wordsworth, rather than being an irremediable pathological state of mind, can also be a deliberate act of distancing oneself from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Such acts of meditation and reflection have the potential of uplifting one’s spirituality.

Loneliness is hardly ever perceived and experienced in such a blissful sense of feeling and rarely if ever expressed in the idyllic poetic language of Wordsworth. One of the prototypes of the lonely people in the song by the Beatles All the Lonely People is Eleonor Rigby who “lives in a dream” while she “waits at the window”.

The other person exhibiting this feature of loneliness is Father McKensie who, alone at night, is engaged in two thankless tasks:  preparing a sermon that no one will hear and darning his socks.

Loneliness, rather than being a deliberate act, becomes a circular form of inner painful feeling that engulfs one’s psyche. I think that this type of loneliness, typically experienced by Eleanor Rigby and Father McKensie, is a common phenomenon among the elderly.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the younger generation, unlike that of the elderly, is insulated from this type of loneliness. There is no person, young or old, who is immune to the pangs of loneliness.

When this loneliness becomes a daylong experience, and there seems to be no way out, it can be the cause of a deep social and psychological pain that eats away the best part of one’s personality.

The elderly, wherever they are located, may easily fall prey to this sense of devastation. Old age is an onslaught enveloped in a dark web of unanswered questions which provide little if any room for escape.

What exacerbates this gloom is a persistent belief, especially among the elderly, that society is in the grip of a spiritual void which brings about a terrifying sense of irremediable desolation. At the deepest level, this void becomes a terror, a fear of abandonment by every spiritual support.

Interaction on social media has not brought about the friendship widely believed to have been prevalent in traditional village life- Saviour Rizzo

The infatuation with the modern set of gadgets might have given a new impetus to social interaction. But, so far, it has failed to solidify the values and norms that relate to a sense of commitment and solidarity among the members of society.

The interaction on the social media has as yet not brought about the friendship and the camaraderie reminiscent of or widely believed to have been prevalent in the social interaction among the community of the traditional village life.

However nostalgic or romantic this line of reasoning might appear to be, it is when one is feeling the pains of being lonely that friendship and human interaction are given the higher value which they merit.

The clock cannot be turned back in order to help us relieve the pains of this seemingly higher degree of loneliness prevalent in modern society. The escape route may be that kind of reflective thinking that gives calmness to judgement.

Old age can be, or, maybe, often is, conducive to such a reflective mode of thinking. Perhaps by engaging in such reflective thinking, loneliness can be transformed into that typical meditative solitude in which Wordsworth, during his rambling in the Lake District, found the inspiration to the themes of his poems.

This does not, of course, mean that we should try to write poems in order to help us overcome the pangs of loneliness. What we can do is to sharpen the reflections that are triggered during solitude and, in the process, try to rid ourselves of some of our delusions and the sense of emptiness which tend to exacerbate the feeling of loneliness.

During this type of reflection, sitting on a bench in the village square watching life go by may help us to detach ourselves from the rough and tumble of life. As we do so, we tend to become highly alert to the illusions which make us continuously aware that what we perceive does not match the real state of the world.

Friendship can be helpful in our struggle to come to grips with these illusions. Reality may, however, reveal that being part of a congregation or joining a crowd might not always rescue us from the pain and pangs of loneliness and marginalisation. One can feel lonely even in a crowd.

Saviour Rizzo is a former director of the Centre for Labour Studies at the University of Malta.

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