January 19, 2016
It is 9:30 on a Monday evening and I’m caught in a swirl of jackets and scarves as I leave a lecture on the origins of the Bible. After a two-hour presentation on the history of the holy book that guides my Christian community, all I can think about is how little I feel a part of it.
I spent the majority of the Q&A debating whether or not I should ask for a ride home or just hoof it to BART and go back by myself. There were people I recognized in the audience. People who live near my house and know who I am. But I came to this lecture on my own, so I should probably leave the same way.
“We didn’t drive in,” she says when I muster the courage to make my request. “But even if we had, there wouldn’t be an extra seat.”
Her answer spills out quickly as she turns the other direction, pony tail swinging while she catches up with the her cadre of friends. They grab hands and hunch over phones, five paces, a few giggles and a world ahead of me.
Even if we had. Even if she had driven into the city that evening, she couldn’t have taken me home. There wasn’t room in the car full of friendship. Not for me.
I pace down the pavement behind them and ponder the weight of being empty.
How is it possible, I wonder, to feel so left out in the midst of a community? To be wary of attempting connection—so gun-shy from constant rejection that I’m afraid to ask for a ride?
I wear my loneliness the way I wear the weight that I gained over Christmas: with a deep sense of shame that I try to hide until I can fix it. The longer it is here, the more used to it I become, but I never stop feeling ashamed. I never stop wishing things were different or that I could go back to the way it used to be, the way I used to be. The one thing I do stop is trying to fix it.
This is just how it is, I tell myself. This is how it’s going to be from here on out. I grab a pint of ice cream and a Redbox and go home to curl up on the only piece of furniture my in the studio-style living space. You have every night all to yourself, I reason. Every night. You may as well enjoy it (though I really don’t enjoy it at all).
Truth be told, I am a bit of a wallower, but I’m really not a quitter. After a day or two of self-indulgence I’m back on my feet and trying to fix things again. I go to the gym and eat handfuls of kale. I text every friend I can think of and try to muster a connection:
Hey there! I’ve missed you! It’s been super busy, but I’d love to catch up. Anytime you’re free just let me know and we’ll work something out. My schedule’s super flexible.
It has been busy, but not as busy as I imply. I don’t want to seem too needy, though when I say “anytime you’re free” I really do mean any time.
Sometimes people text back. Sometimes we actually get coffee. Sometimes it gets rescheduled five times before both of us give up.
More often than a reply to my proposed coffee date, the response that I get is a three-word question I’ve come to dread: “How are you?”
I have principals about giving canned answers to unintentionally insincere questions like “How’s it going?” and “How’re you doing?” Most of the time the inquirer means well, but doesn’t really want to know the honest answer, especially if life has been hard, which in my case, it has.
Acceptable answers to how it is going:
Less acceptable answers:
Not so good
The answer that promises to end your conversation
Loneliness isn’t supposed to be a thing you struggle with unless you’ve recently relocated or are out of the country, away on business or in a long-distance relationship. Social media is covered with candid (and not-so-candid) snapshots of people hiking, laughing, playing and drinking with sisters, soulmates, babies and boyfriends. We don’t expect that people are lonely and so we don’t know how we’re supposed to respond when they say that they are. We say “I’m sorry,” like we do when someone has died or been fired from a job. We speak as if there’s nothing to be done, and then we live as if that were true.
I have moved eight times in the past six years, which is less than some but more than most. I’ve been homesick and nostalgic, and at times I’ve longed for roots that were deeper than those I had made, but I have never known loneliness the way I have since moving to California.
This in itself is a really difficult thing for me to own and admit. I want to think that I’m likable enough to be worthy of love and belonging, talented enough to be an asset to a community and strong enough not to need any of this relationship business at all. But the truth is that I’m not. I am not as worthy or necessary or strong as I thought. I am one person in a sea of people and I seem to always be swimming alone.
When I moved to California, it was as a single woman with a deep-seated hope that she could mend fences with someone she loved more than she’d thought was possible. Sure, there was graduate school, which she (that is, I) had planned to attend, but really, who moves halfway across the country to go $40,000 into debt completing an arts degree that might have been fully funded elsewhere ?
The girl moved. The fence-mending didn’t happen. Graduate school did. There was a roommate and there were colleagues and co-workers and classmates, and at times there was even community, but none of that is here right now—on a Monday evening in the corner of a basement apartment, huddled by a space heater and yearning for a sense of belonging.
Maybe it’s California, or maybe it’s just me, but it seems that there has been precious little forgiveness for the relational errors I’ve made since moving. I do not burn bridges on purpose. I am not a mean or difficult person. In fact, I am far less difficult than I have been at other times in my life, but none of this seems to matter. There are just not enough chairs at the table and so I am somehow always left standing.
It is entirely possible that I need to do more—to throw more parties, initiate more conversations, network at more events or throw myself up on some dating websites. But I am so tired of striving for acceptance. I don’t think that I can work at it any harder.
Part of the reason I blog is out of a need to feel connected and a desire to reach someone (anyone) and help them to feel less alone. If you’ve ever been lonely—ever found yourself searching for a table, praying for a seat, longing for a corner or waiting for someone (anyone) to initiate a conversation—then you know the place from which I speak. You know the longing to be seen and the shame of not being enough.
If you’ve never been lonely—never known the feeling of fearfully floating like an untethered buoy at sea—then you won’t understand and you probably won’t see. Perhaps the biggest benefit of being lonely is the solidarity you feel with everyone else who has been or is in the same situation. It is a bond that goes deep, this fear of being forgotten. Of being nothing and no one of importance.
A part of me knows that this is only a season, that in a mouse-click, a moment, a chance encounter or a single conversation I might move from isolated to accepted and from outcast to embraced. One dinner invitation. One phone call. One single opportunity to build bonds with a community that has the time and capacity to genuinely build them back. It really is that easy.
So then, why does it seem so hard?
Maybe because we forget. Because we get so caught up in the joy of our own connection that we forget what it was like to be forgotten. We forget that we were the stranger, the foreigner, the person outside of the circle.
This blog post is for the forgotten. This blog post is for the unseen. For those who have known a deeper, longer, more painful sort of lonely than I can even begin to imagine.
I cannot promise that you will someday have all that you long for. I wish that I could. I wish that you could promise me back and we could assure one another that eventually it all will make sense—that there will be reason for our suffering and purpose to our pain, that these seasons are temporary and teaching and we will come out on the other side better for having lived through them. But I cannot say these things.
What I can do is share something I know to be true, and that is that you are worthy of love and belonging right now, this very moment, exactly as you are. The fact that you do not have those things does not mean that you do not deserve them or you are somehow inherently flawed. Wherever you are and for whatever reason you are there, know that even in your loneliness you are never truly alone.
(For the song linked to this post: click here)
This is for all the lonely people
Thinking that life has passed them by
Don’t give up until you drink from the silver cup
And ride that highway in the sky
This is for all the single people
Thinking that love has left them dry
Don’t give up until you drink from the silver cup
You never know until you try
Well, I’m on my way
Yes, I’m back to stay
Well, I’m on my way back home