I’ve never not felt lonely.
Not while surrounded by friends at my book launch party, not while with family on my birthday, not while singing Christmas carols with overflowing wine and loved ones in a marvelously crowded jazz bar decorated in big red bows and filled to the brim with cozy joy.
Of course you can feel lonely in a crowd—I feel especially lonely in a crowd—but I even feel lonely in the secure nest of sweet one-on-one relationships, woven together with memories and connections and long-standing promises of security.
A friend of mine recently updated me on her ten-year-old daughter’s burgeoning personality—the way her daughter often feels overlooked in a world that prizes specific metrics of success, even for kids; the way she feels everything so deeply that a daily disappointment can be overwhelming; the way she makes friends easily but still always feels distant from them, like there’s a key she’s missing to the World of Belonging. My friend concluded, “I’m realizing that she will probably always feel lonely.”
Hearing that was a healing moment in my relationship with my loneliness:
Loneliness has always been presented to me as a temporary affliction that can be quickly alleviated through more friends, a more chipper attitude, or joining an adult kickball team.
Loneliness doesn’t take shape in a cartoonish dark-blue-tinted keening while I amble around the misty moors reading melancholy poetry to myself, nor is it a belief that I don’t have enough love or friends in my life. I enjoy abundant love in many forms, and, with gratitude, I’m not on the lookout for new friends.
Rather, my loneliness takes the shape of a small hollow space in my mind that is only filled by my own solitude. I achieve an internal equilibrium when I’m by myself, reading or listening to music, in control of my atmosphere and not straining to be understood or appreciated by someone else. It’s a practice I developed in childhood, when I intuited that, in many ways, I was alone in the world, and it was too much effort to try to fit in anywhere.
Hearing about my friend’s daughter who “will probably always feel lonely” made me rethink loneliness as perhaps a lifelong character trait, just as I’ve slowly come to accept my high sensitivity as something inherent to being me: I will never not be extremely bothered by sounds, strong smells, violent images, or careless words. The highly sensitive trait plagued me for decades, as people around me treated it like a grand annoyance to them. But in recent years, I’ve developed a benevolent relationship with my sensitivity, praising it as the source of my creativity and capacity for strongly-felt joy.
Yet, as a consistently lonely person, I’ve never thought to apply that same benevolence to a day-to-day, low-level experience of isolation from others.
Maybe loneliness, like longing, is not a problem to solve but a natural state to befriend. As we learned over the past two years that we have always lived in “uncertain times”—we just had many illusions to convince us otherwise—maybe loneliness is a fundamental element of the human condition and something that can actually bring us into deeper resonance with humanity.
My loneliness crescendos toward the end of the year, as relentless darkness hugs the city on both sides of the day and the sidewalks stay brightened by those ever-evocative twinkle lights. I get really sad around Christmas, for no particular reason, except that the twinkle lights press on that hollow abyss in my mind, making it feel bigger and more difficult to fill.
Images like a Christmas tree warming up an apartment window, a gift-wrapped barrel in the supermarket for canned food donations, the sight of children lined up to tell Santa a wish, and the inevitability of so many unfulfilled wishes, all make me feel extra-sensitive to the sweetness and horrors of the world: a planet full of jubilant rituals and senseless cruelty.
In my body, this disjointed mishmash of broad nostalgia and sweeping sympathy feels just like the ache of loneliness. It’s a time of year when I can easily convince myself that everyone is happier or sadder than I am, so I don’t know where to emotionally place myself in the world.
If I’m going through any particular little sadness during Christmastime, then all I can see are cashmere-clad couples ice skating in unison and in the purity of romantic bliss. If I’m in a relatively untroubled place in life during the month of December, I’m overwhelmed by the pain of others and the unfairness of my happiness.
More aware than ever of the collective around me, I feel alone in the sheer woeful reality of being an individual.
Walking around the gorgeous brownstones in my Brooklyn neighborhood is like an acupuncture session for the heart, but with piercing images that pump loneliness through my veins: wistful window scenes, leftover sad pumpkins, handmade decorations, small shops beckoning shoppers. None of it is particularly tragic; but the images prick my emotions and I feel like a human pin cushion by the end: it’s all so sweet, so sigh-inducing.
This is where I see my plaguing state of loneliness in a different way. Just as my hyper-sensitivity to my surroundings is inextricably linked to my appreciation for my surroundings, my loneliness easily unravels into intense tenderness. I don’t think my heart would feel so illuminated by this seasonal sweetness if it didn’t also feel a bit isolated from it.
Loneliness and tenderness are very close companions.
If the hard edge of high sensitivity is the difficulty of navigating a harsh world, the soft edge is immense gratitude for existing in a beautiful world.
Then, if the hard edge of loneliness is the pain of exile and accompanying resentment, then the soft edge is the enormous tenderness of a delicate interior and an openhearted exterior.
I don’t know a single person who is wonderfully appreciative, highly observant, brilliantly creative, and admirably loving…who hasn’t experienced some significant bout with serious loneliness. In fact, most of them feel lonely most of the time.
That makes me wonder if there are some hidden gifts of loneliness, as difficult as the acute experience can be—especially this time of year when longing is amplified and isolation is exacerbated.
One might ask themself (as I’ve asked myself many times), Where are my holiday party invitations? Or Why do some people have so many more people to buy presents for? Or Is everyone decorating cookies together without me? These insecurities are extremely uncomfortable and it makes perfect sense why many people would prefer to just skip the holidays altogether. I’ve been there, most times.
But I’m so curious about this feeling—loneliness—entirely because we have so many ways to avoid and distract ourselves from it…not realizing, of course, that many of the numbing distractions actually make it worse (I’m looking at you, Instagram Stories).
I’m curious if loneliness, a feeling of being separate from others, can increase the longing we have toward others. And, if longing is manifested in reaching outward, then loneliness is a rich place to feel more connected to other humans.
A loneliness trick from Ram Dass is to consider how many millions of people are lonely right now along with you: the ironic community of people who feel cut off from others. Sometimes I’ll think about them before I go to sleep, wishing us all more moments of belonging. Lonely, together, all wishing each other well: Isn’t that a nice idea?
As my high sensitivity is turned up to one million this time of year, as crowds cram New York streets and more activities and to-do items sprinkle my calendar, I think about the soft edge of that chaos: all the colors, lights, familiar songs, and seasonal beverages that I think I enjoy extra because I’m more sensitive to them.
While my low-level constant loneliness swells into high-level constant loneliness this time of year, I’m endeavoring to let it take me into my full capacity for tenderness toward the stranger and affection for the windows of homes I’ll never be invited into. I’m grateful to be a person who yearns, even though times of delicious longing are balanced with moments of excruciating ache.
I’m not going to say that loneliness is a gift, as I’m well aware of the suffering it can cause, but, as with any emotion, there are gifts within it if we pay attention long enough. Can we begin to see loneliness as something inevitable, and not something wrong with us? Can we see it as the very thing that makes us swoon over twinkle lights, and buy extra food at the supermarket to contribute to the donation barrel? I’m most generous in my times of loneliness because I feel the most interdependent on my fellow humans—especially the ones I don’t know.
I too often miss the beauty of any emotion when I treat it like something to be distracted from. This season, I’m giving myself the right to be lonely: whether because of holiday cookie FOMO, wanting to leave a party, or because I pass some twinkle lights on my way home. If it leads me to more tenderness, then so be it. Tis the season to be achy.