The line between solitude and loneliness is formidable. The two appear identical in so many ways, but diverge at their most basic foundations. I thrive in my solitude; I am invigorated by it. But even as I revel in my own company, I am acutely aware of the world beyond. More than anything, I fear being alone.
The weight of loneliness goes far beyond the pleasures of solitude. It encapsulates every social anxiety, every notional ostracism. It burrows into your soul, questioning your very essence. It is by definition isolating. And in some ways, I have always expected it.
But this is not a post of despair. It is one of recognition. Loneliness is not a foregone conclusion. It is not a constant artifact that a person possesses. Instead it is an ever-evolving filter for our lives. Much like happiness, we have complicity in our loneliness. We have some capacity to change our personal status quo – to choose companionship, inclusion, and sociability.
Not that this is an easy choice or one we have full control over. I have many fallen friendships and burnt bridges that illustrate this. Human nature is a mystery to me; I struggle to navigate the proper empathy and to meet people halfway. I am unfair and judgmental, needy and selfish. Sometimes I don’t try. I make the unintentional, unconscious choice of loneliness. I let those I care about slide away. They fade into new realities with new plot lines and new character lists. They become apparitions on my Facebook newsfeed – the people I once knew.
There have been times when I have made the intentional choice of loneliness – whether our of self-preservation or some overstated claim of morality. I step away from relationships with faith that I am making the right decision. But even in this purposefulness, there are no guarantees. The farther you step away from relationships, the more walls you build and the more alone you become.
This is also a post of celebration. I have come to realize my efficacy in the face of loneliness. While I may not have the power to make all of humanity into my friends (or even find a date), I can put forth greater effort to rekindle friendships I have lost hold of. I can spend time being present in the relationships I have now. And I can pursue new friendships and relationships in my life.
Over the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time considering this concept of loneliness. Moving to a new city is a stark reminder of the connectivity of life – how we come to know people and assemble relationships. We’re trained all through our lives how to belong to a community, fostered by our schools, our clubs and our neighborhoods. As an adult, prefabricated communities are not as robust. We must seek them out or build them ourselves. And sometimes, despite popular wisdom, you just have to jump.
Watching friendships coalesce is very reassuring. Pushing further and further beyond my comfort zone has proven worthwhile again and again. My beautifully empty social calendar has begun filling with impromptu late nights and tentative plans. Now when I say “maybe,” I more likely mean “yes” than mean “no.” It’s a new paradigm for me, who treasures sleep and solitude. But through this process I have come to appreciate those even more. Even when I opt to stay in and read a book, it becomes more purposeful. More enjoyable. This is the division between solitude and loneliness – one enriches while the other consumes.
I have also witnessed a relationship renaissance in other ways. This week my phone buzzed with conversation spanning three continents and many years. Friendships that had been absorbed by the noise of life reclaimed their importance – demonstrating that some mutual effort can strengthen any relationship. Each person I spoke with this week has impacted my lives more than they realize. It has been an honor to reconnect, build upon our friendships, and support them when I could. In turn, these people have made me feel connected and supported – championing me and celebrating my successes.
When I moved to Seattle, I made a mindful commitment to prioritize my friendships. I have watched my friendships grow, and with that my happiness. I have also watched my optimism grow – that despite busy lives and distant geographies, friendships can continue to build on a shared foundation. I am aware of my responsibility to reach out to the people I care for, to avail myself and create an enabling environment for whenever and whomever want to experience some part of life with me. There are no certainties in life, and perhaps in the end I will be alone, but I now refuse to accept that conclusion. I actively choose not to be alone, even when I am by myself.