Are you lonely—I repeat these words to myself. Once, twice, again. Slightly incredulous with each restatement and at the same time wanting to jump into a lake of self-pity.
The hurt which comes from neglect belongs to an especially vicious cycle. You get neglected, and then you’re not sure how to respond to further abandonment or behaviors which look like abandonment. At least once in the past year I’ve felt awfully guilty, even though I was treated so badly I would have been furious if anyone was treated the same. However, I can’t say I’ve been completely respectful of the feelings of others. I wonder when I was too quick to judge, but also when my spider-sense worked properly.
Indulging self-pity isn’t a good reaction, but I understand it better now. It’s a starting point for knowing that you were wronged. That’s not always clear when you’re lonely and neglected. You really do believe on some level you’re not worth talking to or being around. The self-pity is part of a defense mechanism, even if it quickly gets out of hand.
Ekelöf, for his part, does not care to hear about my attempts to deal with my emotions. He’s, um, a bit direct: Are you lonely / So be it!
Untitled (h/t Devin Gael Kelly; from Selected Poems) Gunnar Ekelöf (tr. W.H. Auden & Leif Sjöberg) Are you lonely So be it! You will acquire a great train In the end.
It feels like a 5 year old who was really excited about trains spoke this poem. It’s as if he saw someone despondent and remembered that before Christmas or a birthday he was feeling lonely. But then he got a cool toy train! I actually can’t help but feel better writing out that ridiculous scenario. I’ve been so lucky to run into a number of people in my life who simply and innocently wanted me to feel better. It’s hard to remember how powerful some of those encounters were, not because they weren’t amazing and tender, but because after I felt I was worth knowing I got sucked right back into loneliness.
You might say it’s an excess of self-pity or ungratefulness which caused me to forget moments which should have had more meaning, but I think you’re underestimating how powerful people purposely ignoring each other is. Obviously we should not engage everyone at every moment; obviously no one is entitled to attention. But some people really know how to use their inattention as a weapon—they will do their best to let you know that you might as well not exist. At a societal level, powerful groups do this to those who need recognition in order to secure rights. Loneliness isn’t just loneliness. Dating, as we all know, entails more politics than a constitutional convention.
Ekelöf’s little declaration does not feel terribly political, though. Are you lonely / So be it! / You will acquire a great train / in the end—the form of this poem recalls the Beatitudes. It starts with a condition of virtue or suffering (e.g. “Blessed are the merciful”) and promises, when all is said and done, justice (e.g. “for they will receive mercy”). Is Ekelöf trying to call our attention to the nature of Beatitude? That one must embrace some kind of pain, and begin to see through the worldly the otherworldly?
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”—this seems especially relevant. It isn’t enough to be comforted. It’s only enough to experience grief, value the willingness of those who would comfort, appreciate their lovely, effective, successful efforts at comfort. The worldly, “being comforted,” is a gateway to a much larger experience, one encompassing a human community not bound by time but by moral commitment. On my reading, suffering is a radical remaking of one’s awareness as well as the world itself.
If this poem is a Beatitude, though, it is pretty ridiculous. How does a “great train” address loneliness? I don’t have an answer, but like my hypothetical 5 year old, I have a story. It’s safe to say that each time I was abandoned I found new people and new opportunities. It didn’t happen because I tried to force the issue and send everyone on OKCupid a bunch of messages. Quietly, I dropped some hidden expectation, and that helped me open to others. I’m not going to say that hidden expectation was bad—it may have been crucial to a life together with a specific person. But if they left, then a space was opened, and it wasn’t necessarily a wound.