“I’m bored,” my adolescent self would periodically announce to my mother, who’d generally respond by telling me to go play outside without lifting her eyes from whatever book she was reading.
What I really meant was, “I’m lonely.”
Loneliness is a complicated feeling, the mole sauce of emotions; rich, dark, with many subtle flavors. “I’m lonely” has a million meanings: I’m tired of myself and need someone else to play with; my mind is stuck in an unpleasant internal traffic jam, horns honking, and needs a distraction; I’m unloved, or ignored, or an insignificant speck in an infinite indifferent universe. I need someone to touch me. I don’t know who I am.
Loneliness can creep up at any time, tapping you on the shoulder, blowing its soft, sickly-sweet, breath into your ear. Once it visits, if left unmolested, it can settle in, like a chill. It can be hard to chase away. Lots of things can make it worse: television, a single-serving pre-packaged meal, rain. Remedies can be scarce, or plentiful: friends, family, a smile from a stranger.
Money can be helpful, but it isn’t a cure. It enables us to be clean, presentable, and personable. It can buy distractions, and entry into places where friends might be made or encountered. Also, therapy. Mostly, though, being not lonely requires cultivation and a lifelong deployment of a myriad of complex strategies, many of which have to be self-taught, acquired through trial and error, revisited, revised, renewed. Making and keeping friends, even when they’ll inevitably annoy, disappoint or disappear. Getting and staying well married, or at least partnered. Belonging to something: a Mahjong, pickleball, or book club. Church, though not so much for the Jesus as the community. Volunteering.
Being alone doesn’t cause loneliness but can be the core seed of it. Humans didn’t evolve as or to be solo creatures. Yet by all accounts we’re lonelier than past decades, bowling alone has morphed into living alone, working alone, streaming alone, numbing alone. Young adults – especially those employed remotely – the unmarried and those without children seem to be especially forlorn.
Go out and play is pretty good advice. It works on a number of levels: get out of your head, leave your apartment, put yourself out there, don’t take yourself so seriously. But it has its limits. Sometimes, there’s no one to play with, or it’s icky outside, or you just don’t know how to be with other people, or they don’t know how to be with you. Then what do you do?
In some ways coping with, defeating, surrendering to loneliness is the central question of today’s harried, hurried, mean, inauthentic America. How to be solitary, or even with others, and not be lonely. How not to be seduced by remedies that’re more harmful than good, to ourselves and to others. How to guard against isolation turning to fear or anger, especially as (social) media’s strident, alienating whispers become fiercer. A challenge each of us must face. Together, alone.