From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life- was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold,
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed me flying by,
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.
Alone by Edgar Allen Poe
I wanted to preface this post with one of my favorite poems. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we interact with people because I love company, I love talking to other people, trying to understand them as I try to also understand myself. I have a wonderful wife, great friends, and am surrounded by bright and energetic students and colleagues, but an incident recently made me feel alone, and I started contemplating what it means to be lonely, to feel alone. I’ll understand if this isn’t a fun read during the holiday season! 🙂
Being alone can have two different meanings and I’d like to focus mostly on only one of them. One can of course be literally alone with nobody else around. I equate this more as solitude and solitude can be a
good thing. It can be a time of reflection, possibly getting in touch with nature, and can be a very rejuvenating experience. Being alone however can mean lonely and this is quite different. Certainly you can be literally alone and feel lonely, but I find that loneliness comes in many shapes and forms and is most strongly felt when one is not literally alone.
When I moved away from home to go to graduate school I didn’t know a soul, and since I didn’t have the money to come down and look for housing I unfortunately lived in the dorms for the first couple of months (a horrendous experience I might add!). I ate my meals in the cafeteria and University of Oklahoma is a big school. There were probably about 500 people eating their meal and I would of course find a spot that wasn’t next to anybody and eat my meal. Now there are some people who might have just sat down next to somebody and started talking, but I’m not that way. It really hits you that you don’t know anybody and yet you are surrounded by people. It is a very intense feeling of loneliness. I would have felt less lonely if the cafeteria was empty. This of course was compounded by the fact that I had just moved away from home and so when you are feeling very lonely it is easy to think more about the friends and family you’ve left behind.
Of course this feeling of loneliness is something you get used to, to a certain degree. Being in new social
situations where you don’t know anyone, can feel awkward especially if you are like me and seek genuine conversation over the normal small talk. It’s a skill you have to learn to get good at the small talk to get to the better stuff. I think a lot of introverts are like that, but they just refuse to play the game. A lot of people think I’m an extrovert, but I just think I’m an introvert who has learned to be more brave with time. 🙂
One of the more intense feelings of loneliness I think occurs when we don’t have someone to be intimate with. I am not just talking about physical intimacy, although we certainly crave and miss that as well, but just the intimacy of even a close friend; somebody that you can share thoughts and feelings with, and most importantly be yourself around. This type of loneliness is compounded by the presences of others, especially those we wish to be closer to but are not. When you’re shy or lack confidence in approaching someone I think we all start to even get down on ourselves thus worsening the situation instead of making changes to improve our situation to feel less lonely.
Loneliness of this kind can lead to all sorts of behavior that can be unhealthy to you and others. In a desire to get intimacy we may turn to sex as a substitute which gives momentary pleasure but not the intimacy we crave that is longer lasting and ultimately more fulfilling. We may turn to a group of friends that become “drinking buddies”. This may feel like fun temporarily, but often those friends aren’t confidants are even people that you can really be yourself around, and at the end of the evening you still come back alone and feel empty again. We may seek out chat rooms on the internet, and sometimes you can even get to know someone really well, but it’s just no substitute for being in someone’s physical presence.
I have also noticed a type of loneliness that I could best describe as intellectual or behavioral loneliness. A sort of loneliness you feel when it feels like you are the only one who thinks a certain way. Like being surrounded by a bunch of pro-gun people and after the umpteenth school shooting you are thinking
maybe we should pass some gun laws, and they say make the teachers wear guns! Or wondering if you are the only one who thinks that Julia Roberts isn’t that great of an actress! I know many people who often feel lonely when raised in a certain religion and feel doubts about their beliefs, but feel alone because nobody else seems to be asking the same questions. I would imagine realizing you’re homosexual and not knowing anybody else who is, has to feel very lonely too in this sense of loneliness I am talking about. When you feel like you are different from everybody else. Poe was a pretty depressed guy, but I think this is the type of loneliness he speaks of in his poem and what inspired this post. This loneliness is both unsettling yet necessary. I am not sure if I can explain why I think that. I just do. Perhaps this is why the poem has captured me.
The most painful feeling of loneliness however comes from the people we love the most when we fight, or a relationship is ending. When I was having marriage troubles and it seemed like divorce was imminent, since we both live far from our families we had no place to go so we had to live in the same house, sleep in separate rooms. It was horrible. I never felt so alone in my life. Here was somebody I was so close to emotionally, and so close in proximity, but all of a sudden I felt there was a great distance between us. Someone I loved so much and yet I felt like touching her was inappropriate and maybe even talking to her intimately was inappropriate, it was terrible. I am sure many have experienced this before, but it’s not something that I would want people to go through. Because for all the ways of feeling lonely I’ve talked of already this is the only one that I didn’t feel like I learned anything from. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. It just sucked.
My goal in exploring this topic is the recognition that loneliness is a very shared experience. We’ve all felt it in its various forms and so what seems sort of cool and interesting to me is that even through loneliness are we together and I take some comfort in that. I wish you the least amount of loneliness possible, but loneliness is something all people have to bear throughout their lives and I have found it to be an extremely good source of self-esteem to have battled through lonely days towards better days. It makes you appreciate good company even more. 🙂