“So are you seeing anyone?” This is typically one of the first three questions a friend asks when we’re catching up at a party. Recently I’ve been answering, “I’ve been seeing people, but no one in particular.” The last few months, I’ve been on an online dating spree and let me tell you… it’s exhausting. Find a profile, write a message, exchange some witty banter or ask the few need-to-know questions, and make a plan to meet. Then I spend the distance between my apartment and the date trying to not puke with nervousness. There’s the awkward hello and hug, the get-to-know-you chat, and the inevitable good night. All the while, I’m checking in with myself about whether or not this man is someone I want to see again.
While the men I’ve seen have all been safe and varying levels of kind, aware, and compelling… I needed a break. Closing down my accounts was harder than I expected. I feel something sink from my ribs into my stomach. It opened up: dark and vast. It’s then I thought “oh hey, loneliness.”
Loneliness is an old friend. A companion, my teacher. Sometimes quiet, other times an almost tangible presence. I sense it in others, but it’s almost like a Patronus — everyone’s looks a little different. But no matter my age or season, mine feels about the same. Whether I’m 23, friendless, and have just moved to San Francisco, or now 31 and building the next layer of life on my own: loneliness makes everything a little tender. Every interaction or opportunity for connection has a little more pressure riding on it. I walk a bit slower and notice more of my city landscape because I don’t have to get anywhere quickly, no one is waiting for me. This freedom allows my steps to be softer, my eyes to trace the tops of the buildings, and building colors to become more vibrant. I find myself in awe of the city I’ve lived in for over 8 years. Loneliness is a lens cleaner for my awareness of everything around me (including me and how I feel) — it’s all a bit clearer and crisper.
When I share about loneliness with my happily partnered friends, their faces drop in sadness. While I appreciate their gentle love and longing with me, the mistake they and I make is equating loneliness with weakness. I feel quite empowered in my loneliness. There’s strength in resilience while staring down the seemingly long road of loneliness … and staying with it. Embracing it, rather than distracting myself or numbing out.
But looking loneliness in the eye feels terrifying.
I shared this season of loneliness with my therapist, and she said “Trust your karma” — meaning trust the work that’s before me and trust in the outcome from it. (My therapist and I use different language for the divine and the spiritual journey, but I know we’re tuned into the same wisdom.) The work before me is this loneliness — turning it over in my mind, noticing it throughout the day, pawing at it in different situations and seeing what happens. Watching what happens inside of me when someone asks “So are you seeing anyone?” The questions, the tears, the noticings, the frustrations, the humor (some of these dates make great stories) — taking it to God and, again, waiting and seeing what unfolds. Noticing, waiting, and processing. There’s no fast forward button, no matter what the dating app advertisement claims.
And loneliness is not solely the banner of the single. I have friends in various stages of dating, marriage, parenting, and divorce who are working through their own kind of loneliness. Loneliness while next to another carries its own unique sting.
When looking loneliness in the eye feels too terrifying, I remember the lonely heart who did this work before me, Henri Nouwen, and his wisdom on the matter:
But the more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is actually like the Grand Canyon — a deep incision in the surface of our existence that has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding. Therefore I would like to voice loudly and clearly what might seem unpopular and maybe even disturbing: The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift.Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for those who can tolerate its sweet pain.
Reflecting on this “promise” of loneliness during Holy Week feels appropriate. Holy Week, where we Christians stare down the long road of Good Friday: a day of mourning and death. A day of losing and defeat. We see it coming, every year — the inevitability of Good Friday. Where my church dresses in black, lays flowers at an icon of Jesus in the tomb, and repeatedly kneels and lays on the floor in mourning and prayer. Maybe it’s my inner goth girl, or my familiarity with grief and loneliness, but I love Good Friday. It places my various life experiences into a larger story, with ancestors who have gone these paths of grief, loss, and loneliness before. The days between Good Friday and Easter must have felt so long.
And yet, there’s a promise laced throughout Holy Week. That after Good Friday, Easter comes: the defeat of death. The breaking down of what was, into some new, yet resurrected. And then, a while longer after Easter, is Pentecost. Where we become unendingly connected and in union with the divine.
I trust in something past this seemingly unending loneliness. And in the meantime, I’ll hold its gaze.