(TIME) — Loneliness is a modern invention. Understanding that history can help us get through this pandemic.
It's important to remember that loneliness is not a universal human condition, but a historically specific one. Here's why.
Yet this biological approach ignores the histories of the body, and emotions. It overlooks the fact that loneliness is not a universal human condition, but a historically specific one. Before 1800, loneliness wasn’t even a word in regular use in the English language. Where it was used, it meant the same as a much more common term: oneliness, the state of being alone. Trees were lonely, roads were lonely, even clouds — as William Wordsworth noted in his famous poem. But that loneliness was not the same as today’s loneliness, that disconnect between the relationships we have and those we want to have.
Understanding this emotion as a product of history, rather than an automatic biological response, allows us to consider more nuanced solutions to lock-down loneliness. This is important because loneliness is not a single emotion. It contains many different emotional states, from anger to sadness, from jealousy to resentment, from grief to hope. An elderly man whose peers have been lost to COVID-19 will experience a different quality of loneliness than a single mother who is juggling work with looking after four little children who treat her body as an extension of their own. Structural loneliness — especially chronic loneliness that is caused by poverty, infirmity, disability and illness — is not the same as existential loneliness, characterized by a yearning for others, or more typically a significant other.