As Christmas draws near, and the dark cold evenings become longer, a number of people will have a foreboding about being alone, creating a sense of loneliness. Is loneliness something to anticipate with anxiety? Or even fear? Should we avoid being on our own, and seek out companionship? On the contrary, I will argue that approaching loneliness and giving it focal time can enhance your wellbeing.
Loneliness has many faces. Sociologists distinguish two types: social loneliness, missing relationships with friends and family; and emotional loneliness, the missing of an intimate relationship, like a partner. Anthropologists have also observed other types of loneliness, such as existential loneliness, the feeling of being lost in the world. In practice, social workers and health care professionals tend to view loneliness as a condition, to be countered or cured. Although there are therapies for loneliness as a condition, they seldom are sustaining in the long term. They view loneliness as an aberration that needs to be treated, and not as a transient part of life.
Being alone has its advantages, offering time for reflection on your life, including the people within it, and most poignantly, those people whom you miss. It offers time to take distance and renew oneself, to step aside from the hectic, running pace of daily life and pause, to have time to yourself, time to muse, digest and cherish more deeply the thoughts and memories that surface, and to view your life with a different perspective.
The French novelist Patrick Modiano, the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, has sketched out the beauty of being alone in many of his books. Loneliness is a recurring theme in his oeuvre, where protagonists spend more time in their thoughts and memories than in physical action. His characters wander often alone, approaching their loneliness and longing for other people they have met and with whom they have shared meaningful experiences as balanced parts of life, reflecting and offering positive and negative feelings, not as a condition to be avoided, or feared.
Modiano is often called the heir of the French novelist Marcel Proust, who wrote his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time a century ago. Although the books of Modiano and Proust are very different, they share similarities of theme and attitudes about the appreciation of involuntary memories, which offer their protagonists new insights and perspectives on the situations they are experiencing. These memories are often evoked by the passing impressions of a sound, a visual image, taste, and most of all by scents.
Of all the senses, the sense of smell is the most capable of evoking intense emotional memories. Psychological and neurological studies have shown that memories triggered by scents are more emotional and evocative than those elicited by images or sounds, although there are little differences in the level of detail or vividness of the memories.
The involuntary nature of these scent memories means that they become difficult to control; a scent may pass by you and suddenly intense childhood memories are evoked. In this situation, the best response is to be open, to be aware of your environment and not to close yourself off to the scents that are spinning about the air amid your daily wanderings. The protagonists in the books by Modiano and Proust are often alone or absentminded in a crowd or society when, by chance opportunity, they encounter their best memories.
Besides being involuntary, the scents that evoke special memories are personal and situational, and as they layer and fuse become ‘autobiographical perfumes’, as I have coined them. Everybody can have several autobiographical perfumes that evoke these memories, and for each person, they are different. For one, an autobiographical perfume may be the scent of a special variety of fresh baked cookies, while for another it may be the scents of a church interior. People share common scents as well, especially when they are of the same generation or region and they have encountered the same kind of typical smells in their childhood. Think of the smell of local food, pastry, herbs, and spices; scents attached to familiar landscape and spaces, such as farmland and forest, bars and churches; and each of these experiences enhanced, amplified, and extended by new scents indicative of the holiday season.
And so I present to you the idea of a ‘perfume for loneliness’. This is not a perfume, comprised of chemical or natural extracts, or a medicine as one might expect, against loneliness. It is not a formula that works for all, and is not available to purchase in a shop. It is a perfume for you, personally to discover and create for yourself.
Begin by exploring what kind of scents trigger childhood memories for you. Gather these scents physically, and compose your own personal autobiographical perfume. When you are alone, in a time of reflection, consciously inhale these scents. They will create space to facilitate you to approach and understand your personal feelings of loneliness better. They will evoke special memories that, just like opening a gate, can lead you to deeper reflection on your life, and a richer understanding of the people who are absent and missed. As you inhale, be comforted by this sensory experience, and be at peace with the knowledge that loneliness is not a feeling to avoid or fear.
Headline image credit: Ocean view. CC0 via Pixabay.