Loneliness, like any of our states, comes a thousand different ways to a thousand different people.
Forsaken and forsaking, loneliness bores through our three-minute pop songs and protracted silences; travels absences and alleyways, even alights upon the crush of rooms where everyone rations breath. Loneliness impresses upon untouched skin and brushes off fingertips grown cool.
However it arrives, loneliness is our inevitable human weather. Our mist and gray, it changes the clothes we wear; soaks the grass before socks and shoes; fogs slivered inches of window glass, delaying our starting the day and seeing it clear.
Loneliness exists less like a project and, ironically, more like a person.
Already I want to unburden myself here, to name something inside me and solve it with words. Please don’t let me.
Loneliness exists less like a project and, ironically, more like a person. A better-tuned class of seers and soothsayers stretch beyond their arm’s-lengths to broker peace with this ever-present soul; read Charlotte Donlon’s The Great Belonging or Kristen Radtke’s Seek You, among other titles, to better fathom loneliness and see how it might sometimes be a friend.
I cannot fix a thing for you or me, can’t win our sad staring contests. But permit me presence in a different shape.
Scrolling too long, eavesdropping without meaning to, reading between the lines of poems all day, every day, another loneliness asks for my attention. Absorbing these aches helps until it doesn’t, hurts until the same.
We cannot create the weather, but sometimes we pile up storms. Bearing witness as strangers and loved ones advance only to withdraw, I notice at least 15 ways to make yourself lonely:
1. Turn someone else’s favorite band (or author or painter) against them, assuming its smallness and, by transitive property, theirs.
2. End all your sentences with periods, neglecting the question marks and, better still, the ellipses ...
3. Get your words out of order, asking for another body’s labor before checking up on their soul.
4. Reject what St. Mary Oliver said about freeing the soft animal of your body to love what it loves; so often our soft animals usher us into communion.
5. Never pray at the top of your lungs as your favorite song, like a miracle, escapes the radio.
6. Practice only convenient love.
7. Only show your face when someone falters, like the bastard who brings a side of shame to every family picnic.
8. Stay inside every time it snows.
9. Measure the span of your heart, then draw up a blueprint claiming no one has ever loved deeper or wider or longer than you.
10. Rave about your mystical experience before asking if your neighbor has eaten.
11. Sit unmoving in the amen corner, never humming along with some strange person’s prayers, and so never answering them.
12. Fumble the mysteries as you try to carry all your certainty from room to room.
13. Scoff at someone else’s expressed hope.
14. Forget to look for the image of God in saints hovering around gas stations and barrooms, street corners and supermarkets.
15. Hear Ram Dass’ words—“We’re all just walking each other home”—and opt out.
Sobriety keeps me from overpromising; even the hint that surrendering any or all 15 ways will allay loneliness becomes a millstone to us both.
One of my true spiritual fathers, Jeff Tweedy, sings of “How to Fight Loneliness” with a humidity and humor befitting his Midwestern nature. Every finished phrase isn’t finished at all; Tweedy writes whole proverbs in the ellipses.
Answering his own concern with “just smile all the time,” undercurrents of organ and the curl of his own lips tell us some types of loneliness won’t stand by or stand down. Not as long as breath moves through us. But Tweedy’s very act of singing fights a loneliness less steady on its feet.
And we start sidestepping this self-inflicted sorrow—always shaped in our own image—by recalling moments someone added to our isolation; a sort of chipped golden rule, the paint showing through.
This is the world we live in: never simple, never one thing at a time. Weather and warmth. Lonely, not alone.
That great poet of loneliness, Franz Wright, dealt in something remote yet more innate; a sort of sacred loneliness we might embrace as human, or at least learn to live within. At his finest, he penned an extraordinary ordinary winter’s night, air fissured by the smell of snow, light carving the trees and buildings, thawing a certain despair.
Behind those lights, Wright observed, “there must be thousands of people / in this city who are dying / to welcome you into their small bolted rooms, / to sit down and tell you / what has happened to their lives.”
This is the world we live in: never simple, never one thing at a time. Weather and warmth. Lonely, not alone. Never outrunning the snow, always invited inside. Destined in these between days to know just one way of being lonely—rendered a thousand ways, of course. And able to slough off the others for God’s sake, and everybody else’s.
Hear me: Everyone’s scared. Everyone’s sacred.
Remember these two truths, and you peel away the soaked-through clothes of loneliness you were never meant to wear. Remember these two truths, and you’ll rearrange everything around you.