I have begun an inquiry into the subject of loneliness, as it’s something I struggle with. I love solitude; don’t get me wrong. But loneliness and solitude are very different things. For me, loneliness is the lack of connection, feeling alone when you don’t want to be alone, helplessly alone. It is possible to feel loneliness in a crowd of people, but I don’t think it’s possible to feel solitude in a crowd of people. Maybe if you’re enlightened. Basically, loneliness is something that feels negative to me, whereas solitude feels positive. Solitude is chosen. This isn’t to say that nothing good can come from loneliness. One can learn from loneliness, and good company after a period of loneliness often feels that much sweeter.
Ever since graduating from undergrad I’ve often felt lonely. And in the last five years or so, loneliness has become the norm. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that I especially feel lonely in Seattle, which is unfortunate because this is where I’ve always expected to feel the least lonely. This is where I’m from. This is where I’ve always had friends. And yet increasingly it’s also the place where I feel the most lonely. I have several hypotheses as to why this is, and one of them is expectations. The fact that I don’t expect to be lonely here makes it that more gut wrenching when I am. Another hypothesis has been Seattle’s size. Surely I’d be less lonely in a small town, I fantasize. But does this hypothesis hold water? Probably not, since there have been plenty of times in the past when I’ve lived here and not been lonely at all. Another hypothesis is lack of shared values. I fantasize that all people in Seattle care about is career, money, social standing and accumulating things and experiences. Since I value these things less, I imagine this puts me at odds with the culture here and contributes to lack of community and loneliness. But is this really the case? It’s dangerous to assume this chasm in values between me and others, since I don’t know that many others. And one last hypothesis (there are others) is that one of the biggest contributors to my loneliness is simply not being around other people since I’m not in school or working a job that requires it. One of the first times I really felt lonely was the winter of 2009, when I was unemployed and not in school and living at my parents’ house. That was essentially the first extended period of time when I hadn’t been in school or working, and coincidentally it’s the first time I can remember having experienced real loneliness. Of course, I didn’t really know it at the time. I compensated with alcohol and partying and a number of other desperate activities. My soul was crying out for help, but I wasn’t sure why.
Then in 2012 I graduated from grad school, and since then loneliness has increasingly become the norm, to the point today where it’s weird for me to not feel lonely. It pains me to write that, but it’s true. The other day for example I hung out with two friends in Vancouver and we went sledding and had dinner together and I felt such a sense of belonging and community I was elated. And that used to happen every day for me. Every single day I would experience that feeling of belonging and community. But now it happens rarely, and when it does it’s like sitting in the sun after months of cloudiness to the point where you forgot what the sun was like. I had that feeling of belonging up until I got back to Seattle, and now the loneliness is back.
Hence this inquiry.
Loneliness and lack of community are things I discuss frequently with my therapist, so I guess you could say the inquiry started there. The seeds for the inquiry were planted way back in that winter of 2009, when I felt lonely but didn’t know what was happening. And today I decided that maybe I could take some steps into looking at this loneliness and looking for ways to, not eradicate it, but alleviate it and maybe modify my life so that there’s less loneliness and instead more community — and so that more of the time spent alone is spent in solitude and not in loneliness.
What are the first steps to take in this inquiry? Well, I imagine my therapist might agree in saying that the first step is not condemning myself for being lonely, to be compassionate with myself and also how I’ve reacted to this loneliness. Am I lame person for seeking to numb the pain of loneliness with things like alcohol and YouTube videos and Netflix series? Or is that a normal reaction? Am I weak or lame for not reacting to the loneliness in a healthy way? No, I am not lame. It is normal to want to numb this pain, and compassion for myself is a good, albeit extremely difficult, first step. Another good first step might be to get curious about the loneliness. What makes it worse? What makes it better? When do I feel it? How do I react when I feel it? This is a good first step because it doesn’t require solving the problem, it just requires an examination into the nature of it. I’m capable of this.
So that’s where I’m at right now. Maybe some of you have felt similarly in the past or feel similarly right now. Or maybe not, in which case that’s great. Anyway, that’s all I have to say about the inquiry right now. I’ll let you know how things progress.