Befriending loneliness in Berlin

Reading poetry has always been an exercise in imagination. In grade school, when I first encountered Wordsworth, I fell in love with one of his most famous poems: I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. It conjured images of my body as weightless as a dandelion seed, no attachments to anything, drifting up toward the moon. Without much thought or reason, this appealed to me.  

For oft, when on my couch
I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,  
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;  

As the elements blanket Berlin in a fog of grey, my inward eye reflects upon the cold of it all. A cloaking iciness that’s all too familiar, something I’d recognize the slightest tinge of — loneliness. This loneliness is visceral and intimate, not light and floaty, as the gloom and detachment of the otherwise festive season starts creeping and settling into my skin.My mind goes to my favourite scene from a staple Christmas movie, “Love Actually”. Colin Firth’s character, a writer, sits by himself at his writing desk after the dissolution of his marriage.

“Alone again,” he mutters, “naturally.”

It’s been a mystifying few months since I moved to Germany after college in Pakistan. When people ask, I say I’m fine, just feeling a little strange.

I am out-of-place, disinterested, and increasingly mentally isolated. Talking feels superficial, as do the motions of every-day life. Flesh to maintain, a mind to nurture, an entire life to live, and an interiority that I could never truly articulate to someone who can’t read my mind. There’s that perpetual element of distance between me and ‘the other’. All dialogue is Chekhovian, and the few close friends I’ve managed to make in Berlin start to feel remote, immersed in the buzz of their own lives. There is something hollow in this life. A video call from a friend far away does nothing but hone in this disillusionment after their face clicks shut and you are once again left with a dull, enveloping silence.

I admit my loneliness freely. People are always looking for reasons, a method of explanation, something to ease their own queasiness at the thought of my apparent aloofness. It’s easy to spiral, after all. The easiest thing in the world.

“It’s urban loneliness,” a friend tells me, “it’s the way Berlin is set up. The architecture, the lack of community vibe, the rabid individualism.” Sure, it might be that. Urban loneliness is a well-documented fact. ‘Alone among millions’ is an oft-heard phrase.

Another voice of concern tells me “it’s just a phase, you’ve just graduated, you’re twenty-two and confused about your place in the world.” That’s probably true, too. My life had some semblance of continuity while I was in school. There was a teleology, a rhyme and a reason. There’s nothing but uncertainty now.

A close friend, an anthropologist-in-training, diagnoses me with anomie, where one suffers from a lack of the usual social standards. He tells me that disorientation is a part of life. I could see that being the case. Alienation, at the end of the day, from all that is considered normal. At the risk of sounding cliché, I ask: “but what was ever truly normal?”

All these symptomatic explanations fall short, as I realise this goes deeper than any external circumstance. Sometimes it is gnawing, and sometimes it is benign, but it is invariably there, as it always has been. I distinctly remember dissociating in the middle of a birthday party at seven years old. At twelve, a numbingly quiet moment in the garden of a family friend, melancholy trickling into me like honeyed sunlight. At fifteen I grew interested in solipsism, but ultimately thought it was too selfish a philosophy to indulge in. At eighteen, windows appeared like television screens leading to a reality that would move on with or without me. How fickle, I thought. Loneliness and I, we go way back.

I think my idleness in the eye of a storm like Berlin is what I needed to confront this part of myself. Fear has stopped me from taking on Goliath before, but that has only made him larger, and my slingshot has weakened with disuse.

When I graduated and then physically transplanted myself immediately afterwards, it was like the house of cards I had so delicately set up as a sense of self, the cursory understanding of my relationships, and my conception of the universe around me finally gave way to the cacophony of actual personhood. Not having an office job or a regular routine, I had all the time in the world to deconstruct myself.

And now, I have the time to reconstruct myself. This process could break me, as it has broken many before me. But I’ve decided to interpret my loneliness as a part of the human condition, as a friend to humanity, reminding us of our place lest we get too carried away within our tiny constructed worlds. That rock I’ve always searched for, that secure surface on which to lean, must be found within myself.

These are growing pains, I hear.  

And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.  

Elia K. Rathore is a writer, a traveler, and someone who is unequivocally ruled by her heart, often to the despair of her mind. Find her on Twitter @EliaKRathore. Photo by Kalle Kuikkaniemi.