It will be like this forever
On loneliness, isolation, and personal responsibility.
The snow is still on the ground, and I am thinking to myself that this is the loneliest I have ever been. Each winter I make a single resolution: that this will be the year I change everything. Put myself out there more. Experience new things. And yet, each year I find myself back here at this point, questioning once more. It feels sometimes like loneliness is a great cavern which will swallow me up, and which I will never be released from. It will go on like this, forever, always, while the people around me go on falling in love, putting down roots, leaving something of their lives behind. I become the quiet observer in their absence.
When I moved to a big city at eighteen, I thought that would finally be it. This is the narrative of leaving: that those who have the courage to strike out on their own, go somewhere new, will find something waiting for them there. I figured that, in one of the most populous places in the world, I was bound to find people to connect with, to create with, to begin building a life with. But there is a specific kind of loneliness tied to urban areas, one where you might constantly find yourself surrounded by people and still spend all your time alone. I used to go entire days in the city without speaking to a single other person.
I was sure— sure!— that it would improve when I left the city. That when my surroundings narrowed, my ability to find community would increase. Surely the numbers had to work that way. Every film about small towns says so. Surely in a smaller area I would be unable to ignore the ways I which I needed other people around me. Self-sufficiency was both a lie and a form of protection, and I did not want it anymore. In a smaller area, I wouldn’t be able to ignore other people— and in turn, I wouldn’t be able to be ignored.
Because the truth of the matter is that I want to be dependent. I want others to depend on me. I want my presence to feel like it makes a difference.
For a long time I was convinced that nothing good could ever last, and I didn’t want to spend my life sitting around waiting for the other shoe to drop. I wanted to control the impact. In time, I learned that was impossible. Then I began to live my life with the idea that if I poured love out in excess to the world some of it was sure to come back to me. That it was statistically impossible that it would feel like this forever. There was no way it could be like this forever.
But it is still like this. I live in a small city now where I hardly know anyone. Within that city, I live alone. This opportunity has increased my creative production, my time to focus on work rather than cultivating social relationships, experiences, or simply rest. Yes, in that time I wrote a whole book, a book that never would have happened without this space. At the same time, this “work” has allowed me to close myself off to everything but these four walls around me. And that is a sacrifice I am not sure I am willing to make any longer.
We read often of the “loneliness epidemic”, the way we are all collectively experiencing this increase. And it is true; everyone I talk to feels this way. Today’s America is a terrible place to be a single person in. It is difficult to find places to live on your own, it is difficult to not feel judgement to participate in activities by yourself, it is difficult to make new friends or connections. Of course, singleness is still a privilege; my ability to live alone is only because I can afford to. But I would also counter that levels of loneliness rising in this country is not something for which the blame should be placed on the individual. I have always told myself that if I am lonely, it is my own fault. I am too shy, too difficult, to unwilling to talk to new people, to put myself out there. I am the fundamental problem. Experiencing loneliness in a variety of settings only ever seemed to confirm this for me. I have most quickly found deep, meaningful friendship when everything else was removed: in places like summer camp, youth programs, opportunities for travel which force a small group of people together for a period of time. I have never struggled with community in those places. I have never felt as alone there as I have in the world beyond.
But I am coming to believe that if we are lonely it is not our fault. Just look at our world. If the levels of anxiety and isolation were high before, they have only risen in the pandemic, when we do not know if it is safe to see our friends, safe to be around people, safe to leave our homes. A failed government response and subsequent mobilization of resources— both medical and psychological— has left the individual to suffer and to blame themselves. That is not fair, and it is not true. No singular person should be blamed for the fault of a government that, time and time again, has shown us it does not care about its people.
And this is a crisis that has hit young people particularly hard. It feels as though every time I go on social media lately I see another argument starting in someone’s comments about young people being unwilling to give up their perceived freedom in order to be covid-safe. Of course, this narrows the argument to “freedom vs. caring about others” which, in my eyes, is besides the point. For starters, no one is free until everyone is, and this conversation leaves out the countless individuals for whom covid would not be a minor inconvenience, a few missed days of work, but a life-threatening illness with debilitating side effects. I don’t think the youth making these posts about “giving up on covid” are attempting to explicitly say that they don’t care about other people; it is, however, the unfortunate reality. At the same time, we have to accept that young people in this pandemic are being asked to give up a lot, more so than the generations that have come before. They are giving up a time that is, in every young person’s life, fundamental. It is now that they are meant to forge the connections and relationships that will inform their lives. That will teach them how to be a good friend, a good partner. A good person. And with that, they have also lost most conceivable hope of a future that feels at all reminiscent of our past.
As a young person, I feel this frustration. I also see it every day with my students, some of whom will hardly have memories of a life before this. Most of all, I think the collective frustration stems from the loss of spontaneity, of possibility. The world these days feels like an impossible place, where nothing can shock of surprise me. Mostly, I just want life to still be able to surprise me. I like to think at the end of all this— if there is an end— that it will.
I am beginning to understand that there is isolation everywhere. It does not depend on where you live, how populated it is, if you have family nearby. You can be in a room full of people and still feel alone. You can live in a town where everyone knows your name and still feel you aren’t understood. That is where the loneliness stems from— the ways in which we feel that no one else has felt like this, that no one else will ever feel like this. We are left alone in our hurt.
Of course, the lie is that we are alone in this feeling. That no one else has felt the way we have before and survived. It brings me comfort to know I am not the only one who feels the way I do, that I am not the only one like me in the world. Community can be found everywhere. And I will no longer blame myself for the ways in which I have emotionally reacted to the world around me, nor the ways in which the world has failed us so deeply that we all seem to feel this way.
I am deeply interested in the stories of other people who have left everything behind to go somewhere new. It could be urban or rural. Where did you go. Why did you leave. What did you miss. And did it ever get better.
Your prompt this week is to write about a time you felt like you were a part of something. Like you belonged. Like you were living in the world and not just observing it. Tell me how that felt. Tell me how you hold on to that feeling.
This week’s song is Run the Road by Santigold. I spent all weekend snowed in, rewatching Euphoria, and there is a specific scene with this song playing that seems to encapsulate everything I feel sometimes has been lost. Joy. Spontaneity. A night yet unknown, a person that might change everything. Once, I flew to Toronto for a job that I had taken on a whim. I had never been to Canada. I didn’t know anyone there. On the second day, I wandered out into the city with a group of people I met at the hostel I was staying in— people who are now my best friends— and we came across a random street festival where Santigold happened to be playing. The sun broke through the clouds and everyone was dancing. The world felt alive. I will think every time I hear this song of that moment, and that feeling, and how I can keep it.