The other night I was talking with a friend about loneliness.

Well, not about loneliness itself, really, but about what loneliness causes us to do – or at least causes some of us to do.

When I had an eating disorder, I never really thought about loneliness. I wasn’t allowed to feel loneliness, because I wasn’t allowed to feel anything. I wasn’t allowed to even think about feeling – all that was allowable was thinking about and focusing on the scale, any reflective surface, how my clothes fit, and how every word I heard spoken around me must somehow be a message about my weight.

Yuck. I don’t miss those days.

But it’s taken more than a decade in strong recovery before I’ve really given myself permission to hone in on the curious condition called “loneliness.”

As I’ve just moved and have a new neighbor who seems to play the television for company more than any other reason (for instance, she leaves it on even when she goes out, and turns it on the moment she opens her door when she comes back home), loneliness is topmost on my mind at present.

In attempting to work through this issue, the argument I got from both my landlord and my neighbor was two-fold: a) that the prior tenant didn’t complain, and b) that as soon as I got my television installed and hooked up so I could watch it, the problem was likely to fade into the background (literally).

A portrait of loneliness? Only you can decide. Alan Levine / CC BY 2.0

I noticed the surprise – shock, even – when I explained that my daily habits don’t include hours of television watching at night. Not that it’s a good or a bad thing to watch television – I enjoy my episodes of “Burn Notice” and “Justified” as much as the next person – but just that, apparently my daily routine falls quite a bit outside of what most people consider “normal” and pursue with great contentment.

I’m not surprised, really. I’ve always been an introvert and a lover of quiet, although it took finally silencing the noisy, vindictive eating disorder voice in my head to truly realize and embrace this aspect of my personality. I’ll take quiet over noise nearly any day and at almost every hour. That is just how I’m wired.

In the same way, when I’m lonely, I’m lonely. Turning on the radio or the television will not do anything but distract me – and I’ve discovered through long and consistent effort that what I avoid dealing with will still be waiting when I’m no longer distracted.

So why do I – as do many people, based on casual observation – seem programmed to automatically categorize the feeling or state of “loneliness” as a bad thing? Is loneliness something to run from, fill up, avoid, or distract oneself from? Does loneliness “mean” something – as in, “I am lonely because….?” Is loneliness an indicator that something is wrong and in need of fixing?

I honestly think the answer to all of these questions is “no.” I think loneliness, like love, joy, pain, grief, hopefulness, and all other emotion-based experiences, is simply loneliness. It’s not good, not bad, not negative, and not positive. It is.

I no longer run from my loneliness, because I realize that, for me at least, feeling lonely is a fairly regular part of my human experience.

Is the man lonely?David Shankbone / CC BY 2.0

In certain, somewhat humorous moments, I also realize that, with all the life around me it’s awfully hard to ever say I’m truly “alone.”

One of my treasured mentors, Rainer Maria Rilke, author of one of my all-time favorite books, “Letters to a Young Poet”, writes to his young pen pal about solitude:

“But everything that may someday be possible for many people, the solitary man can now, already, prepare and build with his own hands, which make fewer mistakes. Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast.”

I love this passage. An influential mentor once taught me that the goal of a human being is to be able to be perfectly alone, whether by yourself or in the midst of a crowd. That’s been a goal of mine since I first met her when I was only 19. To date I’m still not there, but with each experience of loneliness, I have the opportunity to tiptoe a bit closer.

Today’s Takeaway: What does loneliness evoke for you? Do you notice you put a positive or negative connotation on either the word or the experience? Do you struggle to fill, avoid, embrace, or adopt a neutral attitude towards loneliness? How we interact with our own loneliness has volumes to teach us, and our lessons are very personal and unique to what we most want and need.


Photo Credits:
1. David Shankbone
2. Alan Levine