Let me start this off by distinguishing between the words “Lonely” and “Alone.”
Alone can be a good thing – it can be a matter of choice.
Alone can mean happy, can mean strong, can mean independent and productive and fulfilled. Alone – we have decided as a society – is an okay thing to be. If you’re happy alone, then that’s great. No harm, no foul.
But loneliness is an entirely different matter.
Loneliness is, by definition, a state of discomfort. It’s the experience of being more alone than one would like to be – a time of unwanted isolation. Loneliness means the aching and yearning and pining for company that you do not have. For people to share your life with. For love that you can give and receive.
Some people have a higher tolerance for aloneness than others – it takes longer for the scale to tip from ‘happily alone’ to ‘lonely.’ And though I consider myself a fiercely independent person, my tolerance for a lack of company is low.
I love to be surrounded by others – to have a warm body to fall asleep next to and a house full of people to wake up to. I love working with people, traveling with people, sharing long, lazy afternoons and exciting, fast-paced evenings with friends. I thrive on social energy. I always have.
And yet, in the year after graduating college, I found myself lonely for the first time in my life.
The end of an era meant the spreading out of my closest friends – now scattered across the country, pursuing new jobs or degrees. It meant the end of a long-term relationship and the consequential loss of a roommate. It meant giving up a wide community of people I’d built up over my five years in school and the loneliness became a dull, unwelcome ache in the background of everything I did.
Because here’s the thing about being lonely – it’s not enough of a problem to warrant complaint. It is not perceived to be debilitating – you can still get up every morning when you’re lonely, do a good job at work and be a healthy, productive member of society.
And yet, life loses its edge.
The funny things that happen in your day seem less enjoyable when you have no one to text them to. The tiny disappointments that you face seem more intensive when there’s no one there to hug away their sting. Even the best nights – the ones you spend out with the people you rarely have time to see anymore – come with a stark emotional hangover the next morning when there’s nobody around to reminisce with.
Because once you’ve been lonely for long enough, you are presented with two options: The first is to withdraw completely – pulling yourself even further into a shell and hiding away from the world.
But the second option is to expand. To open up. To realize that it’s nobody’s responsibility but your own to bring love into your life and to keep it there. The second option is to gain a new, deeper appreciation of the people that you have around you. It’s to see the love you have with new eyes.
When you’ve been lonely for long enough, the tables eventually turn. You realize that love isn’t free and that if you want more people around you, you have to start giving love away. You have to start texting people, visiting them, organizing social events and showing up. You realize that getting to know new people isn’t always comfortable or easy or ideal but that it starts to pay off in slow, subtle ways.
And perhaps its those tiny changes that bring us the most joy of all – the night you stay up talking with a colleague until 3am and realize that they’ve become a friend. The shy kiss you share with someone you were never expecting to lock lips with. The time you spend visiting your family whom you never made enough time for before – all of these moments seem heightened. Intensified. Deepened. Because their contrast to loneliness is incredible. And it makes you appreciate all of it in a completely unprecedented way.
When our lives are overflowing with love, it becomes all too easy to take that love for granted. We brush off plans that we should not brush off. We neglect people who should not be neglected. We let important relationships falter and wane because we have more love than we know what to do with. Because we don’t have time to keep it all up.
But when we’re lonely, we appreciate every moment. We speak more slowly, love more ferociously, laugh more loudly. We realize that every evening spent with someone we love is incredibly special. That each new friend we make has unequivocal value.
And we keep that memory, going forward.
We remember what it felt like to need a friend and have no one there. To fall asleep and wake up in a cold, empty apartment. To laugh out loud at a TV show and have no one to share the joke with it.
We remember what it felt like to be lonely and we carry that feeling with us. We let it remind us to invest more fully in our relationships, to support our loved ones more devotedly, to make time for the people who are underwhelmed by love in their own lives.
Because, the truth is, it happens to the best of us.
And the only way through it is to outgrow our own lonely hearts.