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Letter 37. Loneliness vs. Being Alone
On new ways of being
We ’re back from a brief break! Spring is finally starting to take hold and the cherry blossoms are slowly in bloom.
We know that the news recently has been heavy and isolating, but we’re learning more than ever that opening up to people through writing is healing. It is such a gift to be able to write to you all this year. We hope that you’re taking the time to heal, in whatever form it takes – this is ours.
To be whole
In many ways, the arrival of spring this year has felt like the long-awaited cure to months of sensory deprivation. Last week, I dug out my much-loved picnic blanket and walked down to the river. I wonder what I looked like to the other park-goers: I spent the better part of that hour laughing to myself as I battled the wind speeds, tackling my belongings in place.
Maggie Nelson (a long-time KC favorite), writes this beautiful passage about being alone:
“For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings. To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating… To make your claim on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largess, into its sublimity. To practice death by feeling completely empty, but somehow alive.”
Though the fear of being alone is by no means a novel form of dread, the pandemic has certainly heightened the anxiety surrounding time spent alone. I’ve conditioned myself into seeing solitary time as something to avoid, something to escape from. I am almost reluctant to admit that it’s something I’ve come to enjoy again. Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time imagining what a sense of completeness might feel like, after growing accustomed to this deprivation. Though I still visualize crowded cafes and potential reunions, I’m starting to see how completeness can co-exist with solitude.
There is, of course, nothing that will replace the ability to catch-up and connect with our close friends and family. But while it is so easy to romanticize time with others, I’m realizing that it’s harder to feel that same way about time with myself.
This week, I learned that the word alone is actually an Old English contraction of “all” and “one”; the literal translation being “wholly oneself”. I am constantly revisiting this idea, for it seems that the etymology of the word alone is as poetic as it is misunderstood. To embrace the state of being wholly oneself is almost antithetical to the way we describe the condition of being alone today – as a source of sadness, or weakness. To view ourselves as constantly lacking.
Now, I think I am unlearning so much about what it means to be whole: that it doesn’t have to be contingent on other objects, other people. That you can be the source of your own completeness.
What is the opposite of loneliness?
Marina Keegan’s opening line of her book: “We don't have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that's what I want in life.”
I’ve been having conversations with friends about what it means to feel lonely, to catch yourself within it, and how to move past it. Some tell me that it is realizing that most friendships and relationships that we hold onto so strongly now will fade with time. Others say it is a feeling that naturally ebbs and flows with the weeks (or even the time of day). Some even see loneliness as a default state. Everyone’s definition is different. But every definition strikes at a different dimension of truth.
I’ve been wrestling with the two sides of choosing to be alone. One part of me is proud of my self-sufficiency, and the other is hindered by it – too proud to say I depend on anyone. If you’re a pretty independent person, you’d know that sometimes there’s a thrill to being alone. In fact, you choose to be alone because it gives you agency, autonomy, strength. I recently read an essay by Jenny Odell which tackles this exact difficulty. In it, she talks about how difficult it is to balance the stubbornness of being independent with the sweetness of being cared for by others. At the end of it, she realizes that being ‘entirely self made’ is an illusion. We are shaped by circumstances, places, and people:
“When I examine my identity, I do see an inalienable spirit grasping for infinity. But in the very same place, I also see an intersection of historical and cultural vectors, held up by a web of countless reliances.”
We tend to assume we are isolated islands, floating in our own little worlds. But it’s impossible to ignore the ways we are held loosely together by the very same waters. We need to learn to let others in, even if that makes us feel soft and unguarded. Connective vulnerability is so frightening because sometimes we will be let down by others, unmoored from friendships and relationships we thought were our anchors in life. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
While being alone is a physical state, loneliness is a mental one. I keep this quote by Erica Jong close to my heart:
“Many people today believe that cynicism requires courage. Actually, cynicism is the height of cowardice. It is innocence and open-heartedness that requires true courage.”
It is a pretty jumbled world out there. And it’s a pretty brave thing to realize that we need others to feel tethered to it.
The blooming cherry blossoms feel full of promise after the weeks of rain and snow. The rapid unfurling of harsh winter, the slow arrival of warmth. There’s still no word for the opposite of loneliness, but I do know this: Spring makes being open-hearted feel easy, and it is everything I want to be.
A Movie Night Mixtape
As you all know by now, movie night is one of our favorite traditions. These are some of our recent highlights:
From 500 Days of Summer (it was my first time watching this!)
From One Day
+ The entire soundtrack of Pixar’s Soul
Everything by Oscar Anton
You know I’ve been obsessed with French songs, but in particular I’m loving Reflet by Oscar Anton (thanks C!)
I’ve technically been listening to these songs on repeat since January, but thought I’d share them now: if you’re into Indie Pop – here’s my Indie Workout Playlist
Lessons From A Children’s Movie
This weekend, I woke up to the most wonderful message in the family group chat: my parents had finally decided to get a Disney+ account, and my dad so graciously shared the log-in information (a small win for this 21 year old).
“Your spark is not your purpose.”
For many reasons, the movie Soul left me ugly-crying by the final scene: for starters, it had been a long week and I was very much searching for a moment to release one colossal, emotional exhale. But I think that distinction was something I needed to hear: your ability to live a meaningful life does not rest upon landing your dream job (or even knowing what that is). It is beautiful that we can build a life pursuing the things we love, but it was an important reminder that we will always be more than the work we do.
Random writing from my note pad
On the topic of loneliness
An excerpt from Fariha Róisín’s How to Embrace a Ghost (thank you, R, for the recommendation)
“I think what’s complicated with when I say I’m lonely is that loneliness is a conflicting state for me. In many ways, I prefer aloneness to most social encounters. I prefer my own mind and my own company but have also reached an adulthood where I also feel very nurtured by my friends. I am learning the language of asking, relying, needing, wanting—from people close to me. I’m forming new ways of being in myself.”
(From James Clear’s 3-2-1 newsletter)
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich discusses taking risks:
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”
And Poetry is Not a Luxury by Audre Lorde:
“For there are no new ideas, there are only new ways of making them felt.”
And a question from Dostoyevsky:
“Where have you buried your best moments?”
This is entirely my friend’s fault (hi, O, if you’re reading this!) but my latest obsession is learning more about my Enneagram type. More so than my Myers-Briggs’ alignment and – dare I say – zodiac chart, my Type 4 placement seems to capture so much of my personality. Fours are “emotionally honest, creative, and personal, but can also be moody and self-conscious” (oof).
In an introductory psych class, I remember discussing the appeal of these assessments. At once, personality tests satisfy two very different kinds of needs: the ability to understand what sets you apart, while also identifying with a larger group that shares those same idiosyncrasies. I’m still a skeptic towards the supposed science (or lack thereof) behind these tests, but I’ll admit that they provide a certain kind of recognition.
Take the Truity test if you’re curious to learn more!
Each circle corresponds to a type of stressor – eg “ignored, watched, dismissed, stood up, excluded”
Over a lifetime these stressors add up. Based on research that small daily stress adds up to long-term chronic health issues. If you had to illustrate the stressors in your life, what would you see?
Tweets of the Week
@OzolinsJanis on Twitter with positive and thoughtful illustrations!
She describes it here:
Loved an image is a list of every single photo texted between my girlfriend and I over the course of fifteen months. Now that we live together, these images are most frequently dispatches from our time apart: glimpses of our work days, moments from solo errand runs and trips we took without each other. The photos are presented solely as written descriptions, equal parts mundane and intimate, revealing and opaque, personal and boring. This is a portrait of our relationship.
J & N