How to be lonely

Recently, my friend Alannah and I were vacationing in Saint Lucia. We fell in love with the island—the mellow Caribbean to the west, the raucous Atlantic to the east; the beaches of varying shades; the flowers; the fruit; the rum. For the first 48 hours of our trip, I was fairly convinced I wasn’t ever going to leave. The heavy, wet air contained me in a way that allowed me to relax. My shoulders fell effortlessly. I could imagine myself living there, working remotely, writing, reading.

I said as much to Alannah: “I may just move here.” She understood the appeal for me but admitted that she wouldn’t want to stay for more than a couple of weeks. “Maybe longer if a friend was moving with me,” she said, “but otherwise, I’d get lonely.”

“Yeah, I’d get lonely, too,” I replied, “but I’m good at being lonely.”

And I am. I do all sorts of things that come with loneliness. Some of them I choose: solo travel, moving to new cities. Some of them I don’t choose: depression, maladaptive behaviors, etc. And then, there’s being single, an experience that falls somewhere in between; of course circumstance and opportunity are at play, but it’s also a state I choose.

Singleness is pitiable in the dominant culture. “People see being single as being lonely,” my friend Scarlett said to me the other day. “And sometimes it is.”

She’s right: sometimes, single people get lonely. But partnered people get lonely, too. Sometimes, partnered people experience more loneliness than do single people. 

A person’s “status” as single, partnered, or something else entirely doesn’t indicate the amount of love in their life. With immense gratitude, I understand my own life to be unfairly full of love; I am romantically “single” but in deep, soulmate-level friendships. I’ve yet to experience being “in love” with a partner, but how else can I describe my students but as the loves of my life? When I’m wrapped up in these rich entanglements, loneliness has a bit more trouble finding me.

It does still find me, eventually, as it finds us all, single or not.

I wish I could say I have no desire to be in a romantic partnership, but that would be a lie. I’m currently in the midst of deconstructing what romance means to me, coming to terms with what I actually want (and can fairly expect) in a partnership, and trying to believe myself worthy of romantic love, whether or not it comes my way. I have way more questions than answers.

One thing I do know is that loneliness is part of the human experience, and it’s a part that I have to embrace if I want to live the life that appeals to me—a life of travel, introspection, fear, creativity, variety, healing, wisdom. A full life. It seems to me that any full life includes loneliness.

The bounty of aloneness is glorious, made up of freedom, quiet, vibrance, creation, indulgence, growth, learning. Aloneness, when you like yourself (or even just find yourself interesting), is often not lonely at all. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about loneliness, whether it’s in isolation or with others. I’m talking about the cold discomfort of feeling unmoored. I’m talking about the narratives we attach to loneliness—of being unworthy, bad, abandoned. Loneliness hurts—and I believe it’s a hurt that we must come to know.


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