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All the Lonely People


I came across Dr Sam Carr when reading a profile of him in the magazine, the New Statesman recently (writes Debbie Thrower). His new book All the Lonely People (Picador 2024) is the fruit of many in-depth conversations with people illustrating myriad types of loneliness. Men and women, old and young, show how no-one is immune from loneliness at some point in their lives.


There's the loneliness of people who are in loveless marriages, others bereft after losing their significant other, yet others who long for a relationship which for one reason or another has eluded them.


Then there are the 'invisible' forms of loneliness described by older people reflecting on childhood scars which still trouble them decades later. One woman in retirement proudly refuses to allow anyone to come close to her after years of moving house with her ambitious, successful husband, and yet others whose lives have been blighted by physical, sexual or emotional abuse which has caused them to adapt... but never fully develop because something in them became stunted during their most formative years.


There are some people you might classify as escapees, who have poignant stories to tell of abusive childhoods they have miraculously transcended despite the odds being stacked against them, but who still rely on daily coping strategies to survive and keep incipient loneliness at bay.


The final section of the book is entitled 'Outsiders', and here we read, for example, of immigrants who feel they belong neither in their new setting nor in the land of their birth. They, too, have an aching sense of loneliness which may not be obvious to others but which leaves them disorientated, unsettled.


All the stories in the book are true, the author assures us, though some details and names have been changed to protect anonymity. Despite the necessity for confidentiality, except for those who have waived such a right, the narratives ring true. Neither has Sam Carr shied away from revealing his own experiences of loneliness; as a small boy; as a student travelling to Moscow to teach English as a foreign language; and, latterly, as a single father to his son Alex.


Interspersed are references to psychological research that's nevertheless highly accessible to the lay person. For instance, he quotes Carl Jung, saying the Swiss psychoanalyst firmly believed people are 'full of stories that have not yet been told and that, as a rule, nobody knows.' Jung wrote:

'Clinical diagnoses are important, since they give a doctor a certain orientation. But the crucial thing is story. For it alone shows the human background to a person's suffering.'
Carl Jung

All the Lonely People illustrates just how therapeutic empathetic listening can be and chaplains of every type would benefit from Dr Carr's approach to a big subject so much in the headlines since the pandemic, if not before.


It's a book to remind us all how much we share with one another and how to become more adept at hearing the subtext of those we may live with, and among whom we listen professionally. He is clearly a master of the technique of eliciting aspects of his subjects' lives which they may not be fully aware of, themselves, and that they might have kept hidden for fear of others judgements or through their own damaging sense of shame.

Carr admits to, in the past, having drawn sustenance from theories and ideas which have helped him to articulate his own loneliness, though 'it doesn't fully alleviate it,' he says.

'Immersing myself in research and speaking in depth to people with similar experiences of loneliness sometimes feels a little like having a limb lopped off and eloquently narrating the whole experience from an anatomical, biological or clinical perspective.
What's missing, still, is the sort of human connection we all need, like someone holding your hand, making soothing and comforting noises or giving you the sense that they genuinely care about how distressing the experience might be for you.'

Whether you're a chaplain of longstanding, or a new recruit to the art of listening there will be many insights to glean from the frank conversations Carr has made possible with a cross-section of people from many walks of life. It makes for a fascinating and unforgettable read.


 


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