Chekhov wrote “If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry”1. This sentence is much more ambiguous when translated into French. Why? Because in French, whether you are talking about solitude or loneliness, you use the same word: solitude. In my book, these two concepts, these two states, are related but vastly different. In a sense, they could even be considered to be opposites.
Take person A. He gets married on a whim, and soon realizes that his wife laughs like a hyena, talks on the phone all day and cleans her fingernails over her dinner plate. He finds solace in solitude, and ends up spending all of his time at home tinkering in his impeccably organized garage. Here, at least, there is peace and quiet. Then there’s person B. He gets married too, but is full of hopes as to all that he and his companion will share. But wifey is a workaholic, leaving early and coming home late, and even when she is at home, she’s only half there, as work and worries dominate her every waking thought. Hubby ends up in a prolonged state of loneliness. The connection he seeks is unattainable.
Being alone and feeling alone. The two are worlds apart. Indeed, I rarely feel lonely when I am alone. Solitude for me is a treat, a blissfully quiet place of freedom and possibility. Personally, I’m much more likely to experience loneliness when I am in the presence of another, but do not feel I matter, or am understood. Of course, not everyone craves a quiet, empty space like I do. I can accept that for many, solitude, especially when you are subjected to it rather than seeking it out, is a source of loneliness. Writing this essay in French would be such an annoying exercise right now. Solitude and solitude. Would it have been that complicated to come up with a separate word for that cold, dark place that we’ve all known at some point in our lives?
I like the word lonely, for many of the same reasons I favor other “missing words” I have written about. It’s a word that, when asked to do the job, can say it all. “How have you been feeling?” you ask a bereaved friend. “Lonely,” your friend manages to reply, unable to utter another word. It’s a fabulous word to describe a person, a place, a mood, a period in time. A lonely child, a lonely cemetery, a lonely road, a lonely year. My second language, mon français adoré, also happens to lack an adjective corresponding to lonely. On se sent seul. One feels lonely. But no lonely roads or years. Yet again, this glaring gap in the French language can not be explained by a lack of usefulness. Indeed, people in France get lonely just like people everywhere, from elders stuck in inhumane nursing homes, to the children of immigrants growing up in unwelcoming or xenophobic provincial towns, to my neighbor who lost her father, then her husband, then her mother, and finally her only son. However, these people, when they get to telling you how they are feeling, will need to use up more breath, while crossing their fingers that you are paying close attention to the context of their statement, so you don’t miss their point altogether, leaving them feeling even lonelier than before!
1 Notebook of Anton Chekhov, Translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf