Are you lonely, darling?
It’s a strange word, isn’t it—loneliness? To describe a feeling so common, so human, and yet, so tainted by the hushing of shame.
No one speaks of loneliness; that fact itself suggests that loneliness sits by itself eating its lunch, no one to talk to.
And yet, despite our best efforts to flee its grip to avoid and nullify its cool breath that reaches to touch our skin—to run faster and faster still into busyness and doing, into rubbing up against strangers, or losing ourselves in profound numbness in the 1,001 ways that we so cleverly know how—it still catches up with us.
It’s like a shadow.
It is a shadow that, as with all places befallen by darkness and nearsightedness, we do not know at all. It is a stranger to us. And yet, oh so familiar.
Loneliness has a particular ache: a drawn-out moan of longing, for belonging, for longer moments, and deeper connection. Loneliness cries a wolf howl, a lone owl, beckoning to us in the darkness. It is a Siren’s call to plunge into an ocean that is bigger than we know from the shore. And it scratches at our insides like nails down a blackboard, pulling at our guts along the way.
No wonder we seek to turn away.
I know loneliness well; it’s been a companion since I was a teenager: all shyness and awkward limbs, hiding behind art and books and other’s dramas to get by, to get through, in the way so many of us at that age did—when we are hollow on the inside, mere strangers to ourselves.
It is easy to become a victim of loneliness, rather than to switch the light on and invite it for dinner, to linger longer in its company, to look it straight in its goddamn eyes and see ourselves gazing back, to know it’s never about the doing, and that maybe the right question to ask is, “Who are you?” and just listen to the silence.
What are we lonely for?
Why is it that we cannot stand the impossibility of our own shape and time?
What are we seeking to fill, what emptiness are we desiring to avoid?
To truly inhabit the skin that we live in, the breath, the now. To take our fingers out of another’s pie, to let go of twitching the curtains to see what they’re doing out there. The fear of missing out. That the grass is greener in someone else’s gardened world. That we might be filled into existence, into fulfillment. That, what the Buddhists call “the hungry ghost,” might be satiated.
For some of us, loneliness only exists when people are around, to compare life to—to some strange and bonkers scale of popularity. Far better to be in deepest contentment with our own sweet soul than a shadow stretching to grasp for a piece of another who can never fill us.
And for some of us, loneliness knocks on our dear hearts when we find ourselves on our own. When the sweet richness of solitary time and aloneness turns sour-breathed and unbearable.
Can we bear ourselves? When there is no other to multiply time with? Can we stop and lean into our loneliness, the ancient ache, and longing?
I recall when I travelled solo to Argentina a decade ago, how rich the great moments were and how deep the cuts of the trickier times. And although solo travel has always been my preferred mode of meeting the world, and new exotic buddies are easily available when you are on your own, it was in these extreme times that I found myself aching for a dear one to share them with.
One thing I’ve always loved about travel is the sense of community, the outdoor living. Folks sat in plazas, whiling away the time: chatting, living, a togetherness that our little square boxes of gated lives seem the very opposite of. Maybe that’s why I love the sunshine, coffee drinking, and wine sipping, watching the world go by endlessly.
We have lost communities and tribal living. So, we disappear into the shell of shame and self-judgement, of loathing our words and our voice curling back, stuck in our throats as a misunderstanding or, worse, silenced into resignation that the world is not for us, that we don’t belong, that we don’t fit in.
We are creatures of relating; it is by the act and art of being in relationships that we are mirrored back all myriad miracles of who we are: the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the kindness and the cruelty, the generosity and selfishness, the grace and despair. We look in the eyes of another and see our own infinite world reflected back to us. We witness our own lives being lived by the words and actions of others.
I moved to the centre of the city to avoid loneliness. Of course, that didn’t work.
Loneliness is a modern-day pandemic; it touches all of us in one way or another. And in these pandemic times, forced and commanded to stay home, to socially distance, to keep apart, to resist the temptation to touch and hug, stroke and feel the brush of the animalistic skin of another, we have all been forced to admit: we are lonely.
Ironically, and painfully, these times have shown me how much of the life I’ve created has been a defense against loneliness bearing down upon me, how many things I have controlled in order to protect loneliness from pressing its weight upon my heart, to resist my own self—that I am enough as I am.
Loneliness is a feeling of lack—poverty of soul—that our own company isn’t enough. That the sky above with swooping birds and fluffy clouds isn’t enough. That the trees and bees aren’t enough. That the life force that flows never-ending in its generosity is not enough.
So we fill the space: we fill it with Netflix and scrolling, which, I don’t know about you, just makes us feel lonelier. We look outside of ourselves: in the cupboards, drawers, and bedsheets of lovers, gossip, in radio voices, and the refrigerator.
We seek crumbs of connection from the young girl at the checkout in the supermarket. We busy ourselves with endless to-do lists, with appointments, and the strange, proud priority of a busy diary.
And, yes, we get that hit, that temporary fix, until it wears off, leaving us gasping once more and grasping for the next drug of choice.
There’s nothing wrong with loneliness: it’s just a haunting that points us toward connection. We are seeking a sweet surrender into the arms of spirit and solitude, the tenderness of being human, of nestling into the discomfort of our bodies, the awkwardness of being alive, the pain of life.
We have betrayed ourselves by turning away from abandonment and rejection, from all the fears that running from loneliness is seeking to save us from.
We crave belonging, love, intimacy, and depth of meaningful connection. And, as with all of life’s paradoxes, maybe the only way to discover them is to stop running because, in all irony, those are the things we are most afraid of. When we loop our old patterns to keep them at a distance, when we trade the unknown and absolute terror of the great void of mystery for the safety of the shore, we are running further away from that which we seek.
Life doesn’t want us to stand and tentatively dip one toe in; it wants us—asks and demands us—to get in fully, to get wet, soaked, and then realise that we are the great ocean already but we’ve been scared of the very thing we are. How strange are we?
There is a poem by Hafiz that, for a period of years in my 30s, got passed back-and-forth between myself and a dear friend. The words, a balm of wisdom, are:
“Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut you more deep. Let it ferment and season you as few humans and even divine ingredients can. Something missing in my heart tonight has made my eyes so soft, my voice so tender, my need for God absolutely clear.”
It takes courage and vulnerability to admit our loneliness. For some reason, we feel that we need to keep it hidden, that we shouldn’t have this human feeling. And it takes even more courage to put down the dally of daily distractions and let it season us.
I am in a new relationship with my loneliness these days, realising that I have nowhere else to run to and nothing else to hide. It isn’t easy. It hurts. Yet within this ache, this neediness for something more, between the sheets of this lover, I am daring to be seasoned.
I’ll leave you with a final quote by Henry Rollins:
“Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better.”
Amen to that. We are all in this together.
I’d love to know your thoughts on loneliness; comment below! Thank you for reading.