Only the Lonely

Let me start by saying this: I had a post written and ready to publish, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wasn’t being completely honest. I was packaging this all up in allusions and digressions and generalities.

So here’s the truth. I have lost friendships and it hurts. On tallying them up, I find one that is “for the best” probably even though I don’t believe that. One…I don’t actually know what happened. Others are probably my fault. Still others have just sort of faded away and I haven’t stopped them.

I’ve been working on an essay about friendships, the lost ones, so I suppose I’m feeling the weight more acutely. Feeling a mix of hurt and bewilderment, guilt and longing.

While my friendship essay is about the life-long practice of losing friends, today I’m thinking about now, about loneliness and solitude.

 

Solitude is one of those words with connotations that can go a number of ways. Solitude is often romanticized. Solitude can be a fancy word for loneliness. Solitude is sought out or avoided. Yet it is something we all experience, to varying degrees, at every point in our life.

I’ve also seen many articles lately about friendship in your 30s (thanks, algorithms). Apparently losing friendships and being alone is a thing for us 30-somethings.

Knowing all of this, I’m still haunted by solitude.

Maybe it’s the intense awareness of mortality that’s affecting me these days. I have a laundry list of things I could blame, I suppose, from my aunt’s passing last year, to my battles with mental health issues, to getting older, and so forth. I have grandparents who have been battling severe health problems, and it’s been tough. But mostly I’ve just been very aware of my own solitude, and I’m trying to decide what to make of it.

 

In conjunction with these thoughts, lately I’ve read things that magnify some of these fears/concerns. Roger Angell’s piece on aging and loss is one I reread recently and had a reaction to – it should be comforting, but I wasn’t able to zoom out from the loss and the aloneness. Then there are Montaigne’s essays. His solitude is an unspoken character in everything of his I read. He revels in his solitude, I think, but I can’t help but wonder if he was often lonely, if his intense inspections of himself came at the expense of relationships.

Maybe I’m haunted by loss, by the way solitude sometimes seems to point fingers at my inability to maintain relationships.

The truth is, I’m scared. I don’t know how to go about rekindling/making friendships. My mental health and recovery necessitated being a hermit for a while, and I don’t really know how to shift out of that. I’m pretty socially awkward and I have social anxiety. I’m scared of losing more people and I’m petrified that I’m a terrible friend.

I genuinely enjoy being alone, most of the time. But it feels somehow wrong that the closest friends I have now I only see in classes or in our office and most of my deepest communication is electronic. My grad school friends have been supremely important over the past six months, and having them has been a comfort beyond measure. But I can’t help but think of how we’ll go different ways at the end of our studies, or how I don’t make an effort to do things or get out more often. So, yes, I worry about losing them.

So there you have it. I’m a collection of fears.

I’m writing this because, although my fears and my sense of loss and my weird relationship with solitude feels very specific, I don’t think I’m the only one who wonders about “how to friend” and agonizes about loss. At least, I want to believe I’m not.

I literally have no idea how people sustain friendships anymore. And I don’t know how much time we’re “supposed” to allocate to friendships, and I feel “different from everybody” and I’m scared of rejection. Bottom line? I’m a mess. And so, the more time passes, the more I become resigned to being a loner. And my "reasons" start to feel like "excuses."

 

So how do I (we?) do this? How do we move into the terrifying world of vulnerability, of opening ourselves up to others, of focusing on others in meaningful ways? How do we find the balance of solitude (safety) and companionship (vulnerability)?

 

I'm learning that living—really, truly living—means coming to terms with the terrifying.

There are so many dark spaces, so many unknowns with sharp edges and ominous whispers, that each day must be met head on with either steely resolve or paralysis. Some days, paralysis seems the best response, and opening the windows and doors seems like the stupidest possible act. Somehow, I keep opening them. I find that, over and over and over, I can open the windows and greet the terror. The terror loses its razor teeth and I make it from sunrise to sunset and back again.

But when I say this, I’m talking about just living. Of walking out the door and doing my job, of shopping at the grocery store, paying bills, all of that, and finding meaning in all of it. The terror I’m talking about is a basic fear that we meet at times in our lives, the one that asks, what’s the point?

And then in moving beyond that fear, in making a life and finding meaning in whatever, even as we deal with our specific fears and weaknesses, we also have to encounter people. We know that relationships of all sorts are important. So how do we know which relationships to tend to? How do we deal with the crushing inevitability of loss? How do we find what we’re looking for in others while also helping others find what they’re looking for in us?

 

I opened up Montaigne’s essay, “On solitude” and found this:

Ambition, covetousness, irresolution, fear and desires do not abandon us just because we have changed our landscape.

 

And, in Angell’s essay, I found this:

Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love.

 

What I take from these, and from the 1,280,000 results when I google “friendship in your 30s,” (and the millions more in the results of any other decade) is that it’s hard to step outside of ourselves to find others (maybe what Cheryl Strayed calls “your tribe”) and truly allow ourselves to cultivate meaningful relationships. But, the desire for feelings, for others, doesn’t ever go away, no matter how firmly we plant ourselves in solitude or change our landscape. The difference, I think, is that we’re more discerning as we get older. We find ourselves, and we lose others along the way. When we find ourselves, when we get a handle on facing the terror of life and opening windows and doors to the outside world, the relationships rooted in the old us, or in frivolity, or in effortlessness simply don’t cut it anymore.

 

So there are two things at play here. One, sidestepping the paralysis and opening myself to others and to experience. And two, recognizing that, while meaningful relationships are necessary, they take work.

I like being alone. I tell myself this. But I also like being with people I care about. I crave deep conversations and sharing parts of myself with others. I don’t want relationships of convenience, but I do want something.

I’m not sure why this all feels so important right now. But, as I mentioned, there are a number of things I might point to. But I don’t think this goes away. I don’t think I just slink into myself and fearfully wait to lose everyone – husband, parents, kids – or rely solely on my dogs and cat for company. I think I have to do something.

 

The author of this piece (found thanks to my “friendship in your 30s” search) echoes much of what I’m talking about here, which makes me feel better. However, the issue of “how-to” seems way too easy. Just call up old friends, this seems to say, just say yes to all the invites.

This doesn’t address the fears. Then again, I can’t expect a google search to solve my problems for me.

So I conclude, tentatively, with something that feels like progress. I’m getting all of this out of my head. I’m laying my fears out on the table for examination. I don’t know the answer, but I know that solitude isn’t it. Solitude is a companion, but it’s not the only one.