The Lesson of Loneliness
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The other night, I drove the long way home, making lefts and rights that took me further from my vacant apartment. I listened to the kind of music that makes you think thoughts and feel feelings, and I passed by homes decorated for the holidays, the light within spilling out into the December cold. I’ve always admired these beautiful southern homes, but I don’t necessarily want the house or the massive paycheck you need to buy said house; I just desire the warmth that I imagine is inside.
Through the large, uncovered windows you could see the twinkling of lights adorning green Christmas firs, and the warm glow of the scene made you feel all the lonelier outside in the dark, imagining the festivities that might be taking place inside: Are they baking Christmas cookies, sprinkling a generous amount of confectioner’s sugar over the dark chocolate crinkle cookies? Are they listening to classic carols, Nat King Cole richly singing “chestnuts roasting over an open fire”? Is a Christmas movie on, It’s A Wonderful Life, maybe? Are neatly wrapped gifts dutifully surrounding the tree’s base, brown paper with twine tied into a pretty bow on top? Are children counting down the days to Christmas, swearing that this is the year they’ll finally catch a glimpse of Santa and his reindeer? What joy is present in that home with the twinkling lights and warmth overflowing through the big bay window?
I felt lonely on that drive, the kind of lonely that you feel when days are short, the sun never rising more than 30 degrees above the horizon, the thermometer not rising much beyond that, either. Short, cold, dark winter days. The poetry of loneliness.
There’s a scene in the seventh Harry Potter that came to mind on my darkened drive. Harry has made the pilgrimage to the town his parents lived in before they were killed; wandering through the setting of his parents’ death for the first time, he passes by a church, light illuminating the stained glass windows and the sound of joyful singing spilling out of the open door. Standing in the cold of the night, snow silently falling, he realizes it is Christmas Eve. What heart hasn’t felt the loneliness painted with the words of this scene?
In the past, when I’ve encountered loneliness, I’ve been quick to remedy it: call a friend, make plans, turn on The Office reruns, scroll through social media, read a book. I think that’s a pretty natural reaction—loneliness is pretty uncomfortable, after all.
But I’d never admit this loneliness to anyone. Who would? What could be more weak, more vulnerable than telling someone, “I am lonely”? Is loneliness humanity’s biggest universal secret—"the secret that we know that we don’t know how to tell” as Bon Iver sings in “Blood Bank”? (Arguably the most lonely song to ever exist and also arguably my most-played Bon Iver song BECAUSE IT’S SO OVERWHELMINGLY BEAUTIFUL.)
We all experience it, and yet we are convinced that we are the only ones, that confessing loneliness betrays something defective within us. We feel dreadfully alone, like an abyss separates us, and only us, from the rest of the world. We are Squidward in that scene from Spongebob, the lone figure on a white background as the word “alone” is repeated by a chorus of creepy voices in varying tones over and over and over.
We hide our loneliness as a shameful, indecent secret, something that must never be exposed to the world lest we doom ourselves to being viewed as—God forbid—NEEDY.
But on my drive through the night, I didn’t try to chase away the loneliness this time. Instead, I chose to sit with this uncomfortable feeling of isolation, and I realized that perhaps loneliness isn’t a disease in need of an immediate cure; perhaps there’s a truth waiting to be acknowledged within the discomfort of loneliness.
Could loneliness simply be a holy humbling—a necessary reminder that we need each other—not just to alleviate boredom or help us achieve a level of social satisfaction, but to fill a part of our soul that was created for connection, for community, for the love of other souls? What if loneliness is just a necessary shake-up from our too-full days and noisy nights that lead us to believe we have it all together, that we are independent and successful and capable all on our own?
The loneliness of that Christmas drive illuminated for me the beauty of our hearts’ fragility, of this deep need we have for one another. Because OH MY WORD, how utterly magnificent is it to freely admit to each other in trust, “I need you”? I need taquitos and margaritas with my friends and I need dinners with my family and I need camaraderie with my co-workers and I need the support of you all who read this blog and I need the cashier at Walmart who encourages me on a blegh-day and I just straight-up need people.
It’s counter-cultural, admitting this need. We are taught that independence is life’s ultimate aim, that to need someone is weakness. Pinterest is littered with loopy-lettered graphics touting the power of self-sufficiency. To be The Independent Woman or The Independent Man is the ultimate marker of success in our finances, our relationships, our careers, our lives. Our politics have followed suit; we need no one, we are [insert your country of residence here], and we are capable all by ourselves, thank you very much.
But I propose it’s time to rewrite the narrative of “I’ve got this on my own,” to remove the stigma of neediness, and to instead celebrate this dependence we have on one another. The next time loneliness drops in on your day, I encourage you to sit with it, to not withdraw in fear of the feeling. Because in this loneliness is the opportunity to recognize the necessity of neediness and to deepen your appreciation for the relationships in your life, from the lasting ones to the passing ones. As author Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.” You and me, walking home, together.
[Photo by Julie Bloom.]