Of all the unspoken words in the wild world of language, few quiet a conversation as quickly as “lonely,” “loneliness,” and “alone,” especially when preceded with a confessional “I am…” The utterance of such brings a stillness into a conversation, whether one from empathy or from awkwardness.
Empathy, because there are few things as universal as the human experience of loneliness.
Awkwardness, because there are few things as universal as the human response to loneliness: avoidance. We do everything possible to create life situations where we never have to be lonely. When, despite our best efforts, it still lingers, we do everything we can to numb our ability to experience it.
Experiencing Loneliness. What does that even mean?
The last ten days of the year are some of the most polarizing. The holidays can be a time of great intimacy, with family gatherings and traditions shared with the people you call “home.” They can also be days of great grief, for those who cannot feast with family or firework with friends.
I understand this polarization better than ever, having just spent my first holiday time in a foreign country. There were several points of celebration with loved ones here in Germany, but I had plenty of days without seeing a friendly face along the way. More than that, I have had to fight my way through some internal turmoil as I experienced loneliness.
Wait. Is that even right? Did I experience loneliness?
Loneliness is the experience of being alone, right? Isolation. An experience of being without others, often understood with the nuance that this is not chosen.
I know I experienced something, but if I’m honest, that’s not entirely it. There were always people around me, at least is a wider sense. I live in a city. Most days I went into town, to a café or the grocery store. There are plenty of humans in my world, and even if the interaction is not much more than “do you want anything else with that?”, it’s interaction nonetheless. Very few of us live in situations really devoid of human contact.
And yet, the experience of loneliness is still there. No one would be foolish enough to deny that.
Loneliness is the experience of being alone, but maybe not in proximity. One can often be alone in a crowded room, as the saying goes. So there’s something inward about it, something about inner isolation.
The feeling of loneliness. That inner experience of being without companions, of not being seen by an Other. It’s strong. It runs deep. And quite frankly, it’s scary as hell.
Wait a minute. That’s different. I thought it was the same, but something changed.
There was a shift from the experience of loneliness to the experience of fear. It’s one thing to feel alone. It’s another entirely to be afraid of being alone [forever]. Most people have enough maturity to navigate moments of loneliness, but when it looks as if there will be no end to it, it becomes unbearable. It twists your world, gains voice and torments your waking thoughts.
There’s not much in the world as powerful as fear. We tell children not to be afraid, as if it’s something silly that they should just dismiss, and yet as adults we live lives ruled by it.
An old man once wrote to his loved ones saying, “Love casts out fear.” But love requires two. No wonder moments of loneliness can carry on to experiences of fear.
Loneliness. The feeling of loneliness. The fear of being alone.
They’re different, and I think that’s important.
There are lots of humans in the world, very few of us are on deserted islands. Moments, as hard as they may be, are exactly that – moments. They pass, and come again. I’m not sure we will ever be rid of the feeling of loneliness. But fear… that’s something we can address. There is Love for fear. There is Courage for fear. There is Hope for fear.
When this fear comes on me, whether it be tonight or in morning light, I gain solace in knowing I can call it what it is and know its days are numbered.