Takashimadaira housing complex in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara)
With a population of 127 million, Japan has the most rapidly aging society on the planet. As Norimitsu Onishi reports at The New York Times, elderly individuals often live in extreme isolation, albeit only a few feet from neighbors on all sides, “trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births.” Their fate? A “lonely death” where their body may remain undiscovered in their small government apartment for days (or even years) because family is distant both physically and emotionally, and friends have all long since passed away.
The first time it happened, or at least the first time it drew national attention, the corpse of a 69-year-old man living near Mrs. Ito had been lying on the floor for three years, without anyone noticing his absence. His monthly rent and utilities had been withdrawn automatically from his bank account. Finally, after his savings were depleted in 2000, the authorities came to the apartment and found his skeleton near the kitchen, its flesh picked clean by maggots and beetles, just a few feet away from his next-door neighbors.
Mrs. Ito, age 91, lives alone in a small government apartment built back in the 1960s for up-and-coming salary men.
She had been lonely every day for the past quarter of a century, she said, ever since her daughter and husband had died of cancer, three months apart. Mrs. Ito still had a stepdaughter, but they had grown apart over the decades, exchanging New Year’s cards or occasional greetings on holidays.
So Mrs. Ito asked a neighbor in the opposite building for a favor. Could she, once a day, look across the greenery separating their apartments and gaze up at Mrs. Ito’s window?
Every evening around 6 p.m., before retiring for the night, Mrs. Ito closed the paper screen in the window. Then in the morning, after her alarm woke her at 5:40 a.m., she slid the screen back open.
“If it’s closed,” Mrs. Ito told her neighbor, “it means I’ve died.”
Mrs. Ito felt reassured when the neighbor agreed, so she began sending the woman gifts of pears every summer to occasionally glance her way.
In my adolescence, summer was a time of self-improvement. I planned my reinvention meticulously. Come the fresh school year, I’d breeze through the doors of my high school with perfect hair, new clothes, and a laser focus. Of course, I had a limited budget, hair that refused to straighten completely, and a tendency to get discouraged or distracted by the slightest obstacle. To be honest, the fun wasn’t in the result. It was the daydreaming, the dog-earing pages of Seventeen and the endless bookmarking of WikiHow articles in Internet Explorer that made everything seem possible.
This summer is my twenty-seventh. I’m looking forward to self-reflection, but I won’t be switching shampoos or going on a shopping spree. Instead, I’m going to live alone for the first time.
Mu -- Spicy Korean radish. Photo by Tim Evanson. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
While searching for a Korean radish called mu to make her grandmother’s soup, Vivien Lee meditates on family and food—what it means to be Korean in the West—where the burning desire for individuality is at odds with the communal approach to life, food, and family in the East.
Every other New Year, I’ve withdrawn from the potentially memorable (or not so memorable) eve of clinking champagne flutes with strangers to rise soberly at 6 a.m. with my family in Virginia, for an ancestral food ceremony called jesa.
These early mornings usually begin darker than day; a Prussian blue while my father wakes to light candles, opening the window to call his late father’s spirit in. The table takes a few hours to set, glorified with plates of dried fish, rice wine, jujubes, persimmon, pear, liver, and rice cake soup for my grandfather. After three rounds of synchronized bows, my sisters and I sit by his portrait to whisper gratitude and think of the other Lees who came and left before us. Once our silence is pardoned, we eat. Just as everyone’s ready to be done, grandma surprises us with more food, this time, with bowls of radish soup. During the Korean War she’d known what starvation was, and since then she has made sure that no one ever leaves a table still hungry. Eat more, she always insists.
(Vincent) Van Gogh likely had a cadre of mental issues, none of which were suitably diagnosed while he was alive. Yet what seemed to weigh heaviest on him was the inevitability of his loneliness. According to his letters to Theo, he felt he had one of two options: content himself with loneliness or try to countenance his loneliness with friendships thereby derailing his creativity (“lead us from the road,” as he wrote).
Aldous Huxley wrote, “If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely,” and upon thinking about it even a little, it quickly becomes apparent that many of history’s creative geniuses have been deeply lonely people. There is the obvious reason for this: dedicating oneself to an artistic pursuit means one has little time for social endeavors. This is what has frustrated flamboyant, gregarious writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James, both of whom wrote about the dreadful isolation necessary to turn out great fiction. But whether it’s the mysteriously secretive writing careers of J.D. Salinger or Donna Tartt, the well-known loneliness of Joseph Conrad (“we live as we dream — alone”) or the friendship-loneliness conundrum of van Gogh, it becomes apparent that something else is at play. Loneliness is not just sufficient for creativity; it is necessary. It is almost as if one can only be truly creative when one detaches from society.
Cody C. Delistraty on how social rejection and isolation fuel metacognition and the creative process.
With Alfred, you no longer have to open the door for the Instacart delivery: A worker comes into your apartment and stocks food in your fridge. You don’t hand off your dirty undies to a Washio messenger; Alfred puts the laundered undies in the drawer. This all happens by paying your Alfred $99 a month, plus the goods and services at reduced cost through Alfred’s hookups. Alfred won first place in the TechCrunch Disrupt SF conference last year.
Shutting people out is an important part of being a shut-in: When signing up, customers can choose the option of not seeing their Alfred, who will come in when they’re at work. Alfred’s messaging is aimed at sweeping aside any middle-class shame.
“We’re trying to remove the taboo and the guilt that you should have to do it,” says Alfred’s CEO Marcela Sapone over the phone. “We’re empowering you to let others do it for you. You’re the manager of your life. It’s against the stigma of ‘People use this because they’re lazy.’ Absolutely not. They’re using this because they’re extremely busy.”
—Lauren Smiley, in an essay for Matter about the “sharing economy,” where anything and everything is now deliverable with a single click. Smiley sees the on-demand economy as less about sharing and more about serving, creating a world where one is either “pampered, isolated royalty,” or a “21st century servant.”
When I moved from a small town in Northern California to Brooklyn, New York in the summer of 2010, I felt the pang of an inarticulable loneliness. Unable to string together words to describe this complicated feeling, I found Olivia Laing’s Aeon essay, “Me, Myself and I,” to be a starting point that began to map a cartography of loneliness. Published in 2012, Laing writes, “What did it feel like? It felt like being hungry, I suppose, in a place where being hungry is shameful, and where one has no money and everyone else is full. It felt, at least sometimes, difficult and embarrassing and important to conceal.” Four years into my New York experiment, the pang of loneliness has dulled and has been exchanged for a desire to retreat from an overstimulating city with my close friends and a bag of salted caramel.
This brief list takes a dive into the discussion about loneliness and solitude in our contemporary lives—what it is, how we cope, and how it affects our bodies. Please share your recommendations: essays and articles in this vein, if you have them.
I’ve been watching MTV’s reality show, Catfish in awe for the past two seasons. I vacillate between heavy feelings of eager empathy and awkward amusement. Healy explores what Catfish reveals about our common loneliness, longing and vulnerabilities as well as how easily we suspend logic in the pursuit of companionship.