I have felt lonely all my life. Lonely as an objective feeling, not necessarily good or bad, happy or sad. Loneliness is a part of who I am and will be, perhaps forever. I decided to reflect on my loneliness this week because it has been contributing to some deep depression and anxiety, and writing usually helps me practice mindfulness toward my own experience. So I write this week not to complain or whine (though I apologize if it seems that way) but to contemplate what loneliness really is, and wonder when we might use it to help ourselves and others.
Yes, there have been times in my life when loneliness dug at me like a metal spoon scraping the bottom of an empty ice cream tub. I saw my classmates, teammates, and peers develop close relationships with people whom they could essentially treat like siblings. My own sister has been best friends with 3 people since middle school, one since kindergarten. I certainly have experienced deep friendship at times, yet have never truly shaken the feeling of being alone, isolated.
There have also been moments when loneliness has made me feel special and distinct. When I was little, my parents worried that I wouldn’t recognize how smart I was. They feared I would fall into complacency with school work and sports and Girl Scouts and whatever else was on the docket, only to find myself in the throws of mediocrity. So they reminded me constantly of how smart and talented I was, compared to my classmates. They spoke about me being the best softball player on the team as if it were fact. I began to believe that my loneliness was a sign of greatness: if I were so much more talented, intelligent, and “better” than everyone around me, no wonder they didn’t understand me! I was too much for them.
As I grew this constant distinguishing caused some deep harm. I became a perfectionist. Anytime I performed below expected on a test or in a game, my instinct was to find an excuse. My parents helped me assuage the feelings of failure. “You weren’t feeling well today,” “that was a fluke,” “its because she’s jealous of you, that’s why she graded you harder.” I found my middle school self drowning from feeling both extremely confident that I was smarter, more talented, more perfect, and terrified that I would mess up and someone else would experience the glory of getting the highest grade on a history test. And I was lonely. So unbelievably lonely.
I used to dream that one of the most popular boys in our class would talk to me. It wasn’t a particularly sensual fantasy- in fact, what I wanted most was to be welcomed in to his friend group by association. I imagined myself standing next to him, listening to one of his friends tell a joke, and laughing, really laughing. That fantasy has never completely left my consciousness. In my quest to constantly prove my parents’ opinions of me (and my own) as a unique, brilliant young person, I found deep down a desire to simply be the same as everyone else.
I believe everyone experiences some form of loneliness throughout our lives. The popular movie motif of the “nerd” sitting by themselves eating lunch in the bathroom feels relatable to most of us in one way or another. And yet, I believe loneliness differs from feeling “alone.”
We combat loneliness by connecting with other people. We join clubs, play on sports teams, go to church or temple or the YMCA. We join a community. Feeling alone, even among members of a community, is not so easily shaken. The “aloneness”, I believe, stems from a fear or uncertainty about one’s purpose, namely, that perhaps there isn’t one.
Have you ever felt as thought the more accomplishments you add to your resume, the more limited you are in your ability to find purpose? That sounds and is coming from a very privileged position, one I feel the need to honestly assert. Feeling alone has driven me toward the work I do now, supporting students in their quest to find community and to state their purpose in this world (hopefully combining their skills and interests). If I’m honest, I myself have not yet fully realized my own purpose. Feeling alone in the world may posit a real challenge, but the benefit is the motivation it sustains in me to keep working. I may not demonstrate my appreciation for every person I meet that teaches me something extremely well (and given the right mindset, this can be every person), but I do appreciate them inside. I cherish connection because it does help me feel the slightest bit less lonely and for a moment, not completely alone in the world.
I know many of us feel alone, and it can be near impossible to discuss, given our circumstances. It is my hope that the quest to end loneliness by seeking out community also moves us toward recognizing how not to be alone, or at least, that being alone does not have to freeze us.