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I had to find someone to chat with

Whenever I put up a new blog post on Wix, the first thing I'm asked to do is add a catchy title. I'm not sure that Loneliness fills that bill. Oh well.

The subject of loneliness has been on my mind for a while. I’ve brought it up in conversation and noticed a quick veer from a noncommittal personal acknowledgement to its more intellectual and less vulnerable aspects, such as social media, living on screens, pandemic forced intimacy, working from home, living in the suburbs. Openly acknowledging loneliness feels taboo, like talking about an active addiction, adjusted gross income or well, mental health issues. It makes me feel both vulnerable and concerned my listener will misconstrue the conversation as an indirect ask for them to fix, because loneliness has such a bad rap and should be avoided at all costs.

My unexamined belief about loneliness was that if I felt it, some sort of character defect I had was the cause, leading people to avoid me. But I don't think that's true.

Until last year, my life was always with others, and back when we were young parents, it sometimes felt like an informal commune with kids going house to house, barbecues, sleepovers, carpooling, families doing things on weekends together. Through most of that time, I was also doing HR, which by its nature is with people. I dreamed of being alone, in fact when lying awake at night I’d lull myself to sleep by envisioning living on the windswept island of my youth, standing at the kitchen sink, alone, looking out the window while waiting for the water to boil.

So when I moved into my own place a year and a half ago, I bought the tea kettle and mug I had pictured and was profoundly moved those first few mornings as I looked out over rooftops, ruler of all I surveyed, peaceful with my own thoughts. Not surprisingly aloneness slid into loneliness and The Winter of My Discontent.

Now I’m as good as anyone, in fact maybe even better, at filling my time with fun and interesting things and connecting with wonderful people I'm lucky enough to call friends. In fact my ability to map out an enjoyable life had gone so far as to significantly distract me from dealing with bigger issues I wasn’t ready to face. By the time I had moved, it was clear that if I wanted to get out of the stasis that had engulfed me, I’d need to stare down loneliness and boredom without blinking. While some of those days turned out to be hard and grey or black, in retrospect I’d characterize them as boring. They reminded me of the feeling we'd have as kids when it would take all day to figure out what we wanted to do, fighting and irritable, until we'd finally figure it out and invariably, dinner was called.

But spring arrived and there was the bright greenness of being initiated to Longwood with new friends, rituals, skills. I played tennis almost every day and while surrounded by kind, welcoming people, I did sometimes feel that sense of loneliness when surrounded by others, and tried to sit with it rather than jump into the social mosh pit. This winter was better, my solo cross-country car drive inexplicably anything but lonely, although the deserted cities were scenes from an apocalyptic movie with boarded up main streets that had tumbleweeds blowing through. I imagined all the people who used to work downtown, buying coffee every morning, having lunch out, ducking into the drugstore for bandaids, waiting for buses and trains, now sitting at home waiting for GrubHub to deliver their Domino's Pizza, consumed alone. That was existentially challenging.

It has taken over a year of this new way of living to understand the importance of my spending time alone so that the part of me that is smart enough to shy away from external pressures can do so. While sometimes boring or lonely, it does allow me to know myself better, which has led to a deeper contentment and sense of peace. As much as I wish that this clarity could occur on my 12 minute drives between home and the paddle courts, it is sadly not to be. Large swaths of time, leading to ennui, almost always provide understanding and insight. I suppose that’s why people go to caves, not Grand Central, to meditate.

A few weeks back, Ezra Klein’s excellent podcast, gave me so much to think about. He and his guest were discussing her book about unstructured time, tying a lack of it to isolation. When we have our earbuds in at the gym, there’s less chance we’ll talk to someone. When we scroll social media while waiting in the checkout line, same thing, and when our days are scheduled, there’s less time for spontaneity, chance meetings, unanticipated insights.

They also talked about how those in higher income brackets can afford to buy certain things that may solve short-term problems, but create longer-term challenges. Examples are having a nanny to avoid rush hour and strict deadlines, sacrificing socialization for child and parents, having a yard with a fence, ensuring kids’ safety but isolating them from neighboring kids, sending kids to camp or taking them away for the summer, etc. In general, the more money we make, the more scheduled we are and the more isolated we become. They speak about it much more articulately.

Ezra told a story about living in a group house after college out of financial necessity. He mentioned the tedium of negotiating everything with his roommates, the messes, noise, etc. But in retrospect, he had little memory of those while treasuring the opportunities he had then to connect with others, including friends and workmates of roommates, when they were just hanging around,.

With all of this in mind, I’m committed to continuing to throw off the security of planning my time in favor of wandering through life in a more unstructured way, favoring connecting with friends, family and random strangers and seeing what life delivers.

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