Only the Lonely: Lessons From an Unlikely Teacher
If there is an emotion that feels truly hollow and hopeless, it has, in my experience, been loneliness. It’s an ache that reaches for miles and miles and photoshops out any trace of perspective or existing motivation to grab hold of.
This is why, for me anyway, it’s necessary to stuff it, sweep it, and quickly look the other way before the bleakness of its stare can call my flimsy bluff. The tears would be a storm. The storm might never pass. Keep it together, Katie… The show must go on.
This is also why loneliness is currently proven a more dangerous health epidemic than obesity and smoking. No joke. On the surface, it’s asymptomatic. We can hide it famously. Yet right beneath the surface, its death grip is suffocating.
Whereas I believe loneliness is not something to mess around with over time, I do believe, like anything, it can create spaces in life to dig deeper into an otherwise hidden ecosystem of awareness and insight.
Very curiously, loneliness became one of the wisest and most prolific teachers I’ve ever had. Come to think of it though, she used very few words, if any. Just like most memorable teachers, she was a real hard ass at first. Over time though, she softened.
Today, if you sit in a scary room of loneliness, I want to reach you. Not to fix you, Lord knows I can’t. I want to simply say “I see you,” and perhaps in doing so, lessen the penetrating sting of that thick and clumsy needle. I want to validate your pain, take it out of its dark and shadowy corner, and give it some breathing room. Loneliness shouldn’t bear the weight of such baggage. Yes, she’s strong, but not that powerful.
Plus, the pain of our emotions lifts a bit when we bathe them in light and curiosity.
My loneliness taught me layers of truth and gave me space to dig into the real, unseen meat of my needs and desires. I hated and resisted her for so long until I held that resistance up against the light.
Here are the most stunning realizations she gave me:
Loneliness is the human condition.
I remember sitting in my therapist's office one crisp February afternoon. I was at the bottom of the bottom. It was not a good look. My anxiety was so deafening; I couldn’t separate out my words and thoughts from her loud yell. She beat frantically on the drum of my chest without reprieve.
I was anxious because of this profound sense of loneliness laced with depression I felt and from which I couldn’t escape. It doesn’t make much sense looking back now, but man did it feel like fact then. It put me in the hospital, literally.
Gail looked at me with her wise and nurturing eyes that day and said,
“Katie, loneliness is the human condition. We all go there.”
Whereas I wanted a pill or a promise, she gave me that weighty nugget. I’ve carried it since.
To know that my loneliness is not unique or special, and is, in fact, a pre-requisite for being human felt like a heavy wave of relief.
Your loneliness is part of what connects you to the frayed fabric of humanity.
Loneliness is very different than being alone.
Some of the loneliest people I know are married, have a couple of kids, are well-connected in the community, or have big jobs. I’ve got a friend who lives in New York City and tells me it can be the loneliest place in the world.
Despite being surrounded by people, we can still be deeply lonely. Solitude, even for all you extroverts out there, is a gift worth tearing open.
I was confusing a season of not having loads of friends and support—being forced to befriend solitude—with loneliness. I had been so dependent on people to tell me who I was and what I should do that this unfamiliar place of open-ended quiet felt terrifying. Ironically, this was the season I started to hear the sound of my voice.
We create out of silence. We can only truly listen in the stillness. This requires getting alone yet looks nothing like loneliness. Quiet passages of solitude invite the most valuable connection possible: you and you. This is when we learn to belong to us.
My fear of loneliness was really about shame.
What I notice in seasons of loneliness, and yes, they still exist, is that I’m really grappling with the shame of inadequacy. I’m afraid I’ll be rejected or misunderstood or simply won’t have what it takes. This fear always leads me down the path of trying to fit in or people-please. I’ve had to call BS on so many of my attempts at being liked instead of being true.
This is when loneliness tells us we’re on the right path. I was reminded of that this past Thursday night when I went to hear Brené Brown speak. Once I got past being totally star struck, I settled into the gravity of what she shared.
Her research has proven that to truly belong we must often stand alone and risk being highly vulnerable. Courage and comfort are not synonymous.
To belong, we must be willing to talk about (and in doing so, reveal) those areas that we are most shameful of.
This process feels incredibly lonely. Yet, it’s far better to take this risk and own your truth than to fake it on the surface and disconnect from self. That’s an exhausting detour.
Being truly alive means getting dirty in the arena, not sitting all zipped up in the nosebleeds.
Does the shame of your loneliness (whether that looks like singleness, creative frustration, personal rejection, transition or grief) keep you hustling to keep it together or fit in?
I can assure you; you are not alone.
This may be a season to slow down, exhale, and listen to what it’s trying to say. It tells me I’m alive and on the right track more times than not. It tells me to lean into the resistance because pain typically signals opportunity. It tells me I belong, if to no one else, to myself. The most creative and courageous giants stood alone more times than not. Oh, they got dirty alright.
Yes, I see you. Yes, I hear you. Only the lonely days taught me to reach out and risk the comfort of what’s known for the beautiful mess of what’s to come.
Love & Gratitude,