The Loneliness

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The screen shows a cluster of apartment buildings, some of them empty, some with the figure of a person silhouetted against the window. Click on an apartment and a story pops up on screen.

“I spent two hours alone, wandering around an Ikea, because I was too nervous to ask people to come with me,” it reads. “I ate two hotdogs and bought nothing.”

The confession is part of The Loneliness Project, an online platform dedicated to showcasing stories of social isolation from around the globe. The result – delving into a universal emotion often hidden from view – is a sort of digital antidote to the often highly curated world of social media, said Marissa Korda, the Toronto-based graphics designer behind the initiative.

“Facebook is a happiness project. Instagram is a happiness beauty project,” said the 26-year-old. “We need more projects that talk about how life is happy, and it’s also lonely and it’s sad.”

She launched the project in October with a call for anonymous stories. More than 1,400 stories soon came pouring in from some 60 countries around the world, ranging from Cuba to Syria to Taiwan.

For those experiencing chronic loneliness – a debilitating condition that differs from the ebb and flow of transitional loneliness addressed through the project – the site offers resources to find help.

Some on the site share their stories of moving to a new place and not knowing anyone while others reel from breakups. Others detail the heartbreak of not having anyone to wait for them as they undergo surgery or to cheer them on as they cross the finish line of marathon. One man spoke of walking his dog alone on Christmas, the scent of turkey wafting in the air as he glimpsed living rooms filled with families and friends.

After months of reading the stories, Korda has picked up on a pattern: at the heart is a profound disconnect between what people are hoping to get from their social interactions and the reality of their situations.

“We’ve really stigmatised loneliness, to a degree that makes it really hard to talk about,” she said. “I’m also trying to show loneliness as just a normal part of being human. It comes, it goes, it’s something that we experience and it doesn’t need to be as isolating as it is.”

Korda sifts through the submissions to the site, publishing a handful of stories each week against the site’s backdrop of apartments and the din of city traffic. “I’ve always loved the apartment building as this metaphor for loneliness,” said Korda. “Because it’s all these people trapped in their own little unit by themselves, not realising that everyone else is so close by, doing the exact same thing that they are.”

She’s spent hundreds of hours to date putting together the site, describing it as an unpaid labour of love that she hopes to one day expand to include other, often-hidden emotions such as guilt and failure.

Since she began mapping out the project one year ago, the issue of loneliness has burst into public view. Officials around the globe, from Vancouver to the Netherlands, have attempted to tackle the issue while the Conservative government in Britain recently went one step further with the appointment of a minister for issues connected to loneliness.

While Korda welcomed the attention, she worried that much of it reinforced the idea that loneliness exists solely as something to be eradicated – a view that could heighten the stigma that already exists around the issue. “People are already so concerned that there is something wrong with them if they feel lonely sometimes,” she said.

She pointed to media coverage that described loneliness as an epidemic, likening it to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. “It’s not realistic to expect that we can cure loneliness and I don’t think we should – it’s part of being human,” she said. “It’s a signal to ourselves that we want something more from our social interactions, that we want something more from our social lives.”

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