When Kim Campbell was Prime Minister of Canada she gave a very candid interview to MACLEAN’S magazine within which she spoke of the ups and downs of being a public figure. You are surrounded by people, she said, but sometimes you live in “an unspeakable loneliness.”
“Unspeakable loneliness”. What is that?
There is a lot of loneliness, as we know, that can be spoken about. When you are lonely in certain ways, no matter the pain, you can still put out a hand and someone will take it, hold it, offer empathy, and the loneliness itself can lead to a deeper sense of being loved and valued.
That is often the case with the loneliness you feel when you lose a loved one in death, with the loneliness you feel when you lose a special intimacy with your children as they grow up and into their own lives and interests, with the loneliness you feel as you age and lose the taut health and attractiveness of a young body and the place that gives you in the world, and even with the seemingly inarticulate loneliness you feel in adolescence, when you are so blindly driven by the need to make contact that a certain desperate loneliness is choreographed by virtually every movement of your body and attitude.
There is a loneliness that can be spoken of because its pain is greater than its shame. It drives you to your knees, but also more deeply into humanity. Nature equips you to deal with this. This kind of loneliness hurts you but it does not damage you. It can be talked about, no small thing: Anything can be borne if it can be shared.
But there is a loneliness that cannot be shared, which is “unspeakable” because it is experienced in a way that is so private and humiliating that, were you to speak of it, you would further damage an already over-fragile sense of self that has been made so fragile by the loneliness itself.
You experience this kind of loneliness whenever you are alone in something in a way that you cannot share with anyone else because the loneliness itself feels like a private sickness, like a thing of shame, which makes you so vulnerable that any attempt to share it with someone would only make things worse and be a further humiliation.
You experience this especially in rejection, betrayal, abuse, powerlessness, and the feelings you have when you doubt your own attractiveness, intelligence, goodness, strength, and emotional stability. Not only are you then alone and outside of something or someone you want, but you are left with a wound, a humiliation, a sense of not measuring-up, an insecurity, and a shame, that is only deepened should you talk of it. There is a pain that is “unspeakable”.
You experience this, “unspeakable loneliness”, in those areas of life where shame and insecurity seep in, where your relationships become one-sided, where you get walked-on, walked-away from, get dumped, suffer abuse, get bullied on the playground, are the one who is never asked out, get chosen last, are too weak to defend yourself, where your body and feelings aren’t right, where you aren’t bright enough, aren’t attractive enough, have bad skin, varicose veins, are overweight, have an over-bearing mother you are ashamed of, where you end up being the one who has to beg, who needs to ask, who has to sit by the phone hoping it will ring, where you are the one who is pushed away because you are too obsessed, too needy, too desperate, too different, too weak, too angry, too compromised, too wrapped up in some private wound, weakness, sickness, or history to be that wonderful, normal, resilient, irresistible person everyone is looking for.
Loneliness of this kind can drive you into fantasy where, in your daydreams, you get to live out what is denied you in reality. Mostly this is harmless, little more than private little cassettes with perfect endings that you play internally to make life more bearable. Sometimes though “unspeakable loneliness” produces a restlessness and chaos that is suicidally painful and acts out in very bitter and destructive ways.
Nobel Prize winning novelist, Toni Morrison says: “There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind – wrapped tight like a skin.
Then there’s a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”
There is a solution to “unspeakable loneliness”: it needs to be spoken, to be shared, to be made public. To speak the unspeakable is a risk, an anguish, an irony, but, when the unspeakable is spoken, what once felt shamefully private and sick can become a badge of courage and a distinguishing mark of healthy citizenship inside the human condition.