I am grateful for loneliness.
It also sucks. Being lonely isn’t exactly the kind of thing one yearns for generally. Imagine the kid in grade 2, and the teacher, all gung ho to connect with the kids this year and REALLY give them a good educational, inspirational experience.
“So what do you want to be when you grow up?” the teacher asks.
Little Billy puts up their hand eagerly. “Yes Billy?” the teacher asks, smiling. Billy is, after all, a pretty rambunctious kid, always running around stealing girls’ skipping ropes at recess or playing soccer or having knee-kicking fights or flirting with Nicky by the monkey bars. Surely, the teacher thinks, Billy is going to start this conversation off in a rocking way. Like, “astronaut” or “daredevil” or “monster slayer” or something like that.
Then Billy responds. “I want to be lonely.”
Yep, I’m pretty sure that never happens.
It’s interesting, when you’re an academic and you first start to realize that most of your colleagues are studying their own shadows. (Seriously, if you haven’t realized this before, then look deeply into the publication topics of any professors you know….Very often, very, very often, you’ll find it’s a little window into their own under-acknowledged dark sides…)
So, I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life studying “community” in one fashion or another. First, it was intimate relationships (my undergrad thesis), particularly communication in marriage. One and a half divorces later, plus maybe 30 or 40 books, maybe a hundred academic papers, a 60-page thesis, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about communication in marriage.
But man, actually having it turn out well sure eludes me.
Then I studied prejudice, and how stereotypes between ethnic/racial groups can disrupt the formation of trusting and intimate bonds between people, undermining the possibility of community through a variety of mechanisms. Five years of studies, a couple more hundred academic papers, a few dozen books, and an initially 200+ page dissertation (I was told to cut it down to 60 pages for my second draft), and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about prejudice and how it hampers secure bonding between people who belong to different social categories.
But man, actually helping the world heal its racial and other divides sure does elude me.
Then I studied ecological collapse and in particular climate change. Twenty years of research, teaching, networking, collaborating and learning, probably 1000 or more academic articles, dozens and dozens of books, decades of communication and emails between ecological research groups, indigenous groups, and others, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how our social fabric is intimately intertwined with and dependent upon our ecological circumstances. It turns out that “community” is once again the antidote to basically all the world’s macro-problems.
But man, actually shifting society towards a sustainable, equitable, non-disastrous future sure does elude me.
Parallel to those studies, I studied happiness, personal growth, meaning, well-being, and the flip sides — depression, trauma, existential despair and self-destruction. Twenty years of research, working with a charity, god knows how many books and articles, workshops, therapy, meanderings through philosophy, religion, plus quite a few years of practice in meditation, mindfulness, gratitude exercises, Flow, goal setting, behaviour change, and all that good stuff, and I feel like I have learned a lot about how to live a life you won’t end up regretting when you die. And once again, it turns out that “community” is at the heart of wellness.
But man, actually transforming myself into a happy person, securely embedded in a vibrant community of support, sure does elude me.
So today, I’m going to be grateful for my almost-ever-present lifelong companion, loneliness. I used to think of it as a bad thing, a kind of shitty inheritance that nobody wants but some people have to suffer with. But as I sit here and reflect, I can see it a little differently. For one thing, loneliness gives you a heck of a lot of time to read and educate yourself, if you’re inclined to do so. I can thank loneliness for those many years of learning; even if I still don’t know what to do with it all, it sure makes the world an interesting place.
But far more intimately and profoundly than mere learning, loneliness is like a psychic heartbeat. It tells you, moment by moment, that not only are you alive, you are a creature of Love. You yearn for love. Not just to BE loved, like you want to consume other people and vampirically suck the love out of them. But TO love.
Loneliness tells you, moment by moment, that you are a fountain, a river, an ocean of love, and it is the sheer, relentless pain of loneliness that confirms that, irrefutably. For if you weren’t a creature of Love, then you wouldn’t be lonely. You would just “be”. It is the very agony of loneliness that shines light into the darkness and tells you that hey, if nothing else happens in this life, you can be damn sure that “deep down inside”, you shine with an inner light. Even if it is rarely, or never, seen, it’s there. You feel it right in the depths of your suffering.
When I was growing up, particularly for half a dozen rather terrible years, I was alone the majority of the time. Aside from school or biking a few kilometres over to a friend’s house sometimes, I spent my days and most of my evenings outside, alone. Summer was fun, but there’s a lot of bugs when you live in the bush. Still, it’s bizarrely cool, running your hand over the back of your neck and seeing how much blood smears onto it from the bites, or scratching your scalp when you lay in bed later that night, picking off the little scabs. It makes you feel like you have participated in the Great Circle of Life in some meaningful way. Sometimes I would watch mosquitoes on my arm as they pierced the skin and gorged themselves on blood, laughing at them as they tried to heft their drunken, swollen bodies into the sky.
And the SOUND. The sound of a forest in the summertime is divine. The wind singing in the leaves (or is it the leaves singing in the wind?). The ever-so-satisfying crunch of the forest floor underfoot. The swoosh of a sea of ferns as you walk through their three-foot-tall canopy. Sometimes I would pretend I was a hunter, stalking my prey, and would move as silently as I could through the trees, mindful of every movement of my limbs so as to not accidentally brush up against a plant or snap a stick underfoot and give myself away. Or I would pretend to be Steve Austin, the six million dollar man, climbing trees to get away from the bad guys, fighting assailants left and right with sticks and clubs and feet and fists, running and leaping and crawling and hiding and ambushing enemies only I could see. I even practiced squinting with one eye, grateful that good ol’ Oscar “had the technology” to keep me alive.
Spring and fall were fun too. The new growth of spring and the return of the bugs, the rich smell of moist soil splitting open with new shoots as Life returned after the long, quiet winter. And the birdsong, that dawn-to-dusk symphony that accompanied you everywhere you went, like a chorus of angelic beings singing their praises to Father Sun and Mother Earth, thanking them for the gift of song, of wings and air, trees, and of course, bugs.
The kaleidoscopic beauty of the fall, as you walked through so much three dimensional colour that sometimes it felt like you were flying through a sunset or a rainbow or the scintillating atmosphere of an alien planet.
And spring and fall bring the best storms. Sitting at the edge of a forest looking out across a field while the sky gets all angry and the clouds voluminously dark, feeling the electricity in the air as it goosebumps your skin, smelling the incoming rain, and then delighting with ecstasy, and sometimes outright terror, as the Earth lets loose with a blitzkrieg of lightning bolts, and thunder booms so loud you feel it just might pick you up off the ground so you can fly, is an experience only a poet could begin to describe with anything approximating the wonder of it all.
But the best was winter. Winter in a forest is utterly, indescribably beautiful. Everything is soft and rounded and flowing, like a woman’s body, like long hair dancing in the breeze, like ocean swells, like an abstract picture drawn with crayons. Not too far from the house I was never in except at dinner and bedtime, was a swamp, and the bent-over dead trees, covered with snow, formed arches and dripped icicles and shone and sparkled like a fairy kingdom that somehow, I was allowed access into, and somehow, no other human ever seemed to discover but me. There were never tracks, except deer and rabbit and fox, and I could follow them, for hours through the forest, discovering their patterns and runs, sleuthing out where they dug down into the snow to find food, laughing at their poo, sometimes still steaming before it froze in the snow.
Spruce trees in the winter are absolutely the best thing in the world. Their branches droop down with winter’s weight so much that the bottom ones form a structure of wood and snow and needles, inside which, huddled against the tree trunk, you can disappear into your own natural cave, and sit there, listening to the silence, peering out at the trees, watching the random chaos of snow floofs falling and sparkling down like fairy dust in the cold sunlight.
And once again, the sound….ahhh, the sound of a winter forest is like the voice of God herself. So much silence, punctuated by the deep cracking of tree trunks as they freeze and split. When it’s really cold, like 40 below kind of cold and the distinction between Celsius and Fahrenheit finally stops mattering, the sound of your feet crunching is…incredible. Nothing else sounds like that, and if you’ve only ever walked on snow in the relatively warm temperatures of the first 20 degrees below zero (Celsius), especially in the city, then you truly don’t know what you’re missing.
If it’s really cold, you can just dig down into the snow and make a cave, and then sit in there. It’s amazing how quickly it warms up, especially if you thought ahead and brought a candle. And then you can sit and watch your own little disco show as the candle light reflects and refracts from a trillion micro-surfaces while your eyes grow wider and wider with wonder. Sometimes, if I was lucky, my cat would find its way into my cave and curl up with me, adding the joy of a soft purr to the wintry silence.
When I got older and stopped sitting in forests for too many years, loneliness guided me to learning, a bit too often to drugs, and most enjoyably, marinated my mind in music from jazz to electronica to classical to good ol’ rock and roll (and always, of course, Pink Floyd). I began to watch birds, long hair, clothing, and of course, human bodies, with an ever-deepening aesthetic appreciation for the endless nuances.
You cannot truly perceive beauty until you are so silent inside that every infinitesimal nuance of the object of your perception reveals itself, patterning your mind with awe.
At some point in life, if you remain open long and intensely enough, or if you’re just plain lucky to be gifted with a deeper Sight, you may start to realize that the air is alive, plants have voices, the Earth has a mind, and ‘loneliness’ is a human construction based on a false sense of separateness. Opening to the sentience of the world around you is not a tit-for-tat replacement for human companionship, but when I’m at my best anyway, it feels like it might even be better. It’s a kind of loneliness that isn’t, well, isn’t so lonely, and might even teach you a little bit about magic.
The downside, of course, is depression, existential emptiness, feelings of worthlessness, like you are a ghost flitting through a material world that you can only observe and never truly participate in. But even that, when it’s not so painful that suicide is your primary preoccupation, has its own deep beauty, reminding you, as I said earlier, that you are a creature of love.
These are some of the gifts of loneliness.