“Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god.”
I ended last week’s essay on the empty promise of technology as a cure for loneliness (I recommend you read it first). “Part of the screen’s allure is that it facilitates a dangerously pleasurable self-forgetfulness,” says Olivia Laing in The Lonely City. It’s this very self-forgetfulness that happens when we spend too much time in our own private worlds. I only realize this now that I’m living with roommates for the first time in six years. Being around other people, I become self-aware; having a face-to-face conversation makes me conscious of what I say and how I look; I’m now defined in relation to another body moving in space.
At the beginning of quarantine, I was thriving, all my years of isolation made going weeks without seeing anyone a breeze. But after a while, I questioned if I might be lonely after all. While my daily routine hadn’t change, I noticed the absence of rush hour traffic, kids playing outside at recess, interactions with neighbourly acquaintances (also known as weak ties)—these seemingly mundane details gave shape to my life. In the before times, I was alone but never really alone, I had solitude within a sense of belonging; an awareness that the world was still churning beyond the boundaries of my seclusion.
Over the years of isolating, it became really comfortable, not having to constantly face myself by facing others. Sure, I could handle light friendships, impersonal work relationships, but anything deeper would require a form of self-reflection I didn’t want to deal with. The problem is, I deluded myself into thinking I was becoming more confident, and cared less what people thought of me. Now that I’m living with others, I’m realizing I still care—living alone just reduced the number of potential encounters of judgment; I didn’t have to face myself as often.
This is the danger with loneliness, it sneakily erodes confidence over time. “In the beginning you know that loneliness is circumstantial, but over a long period of time, you start to doubt yourself,” says Dr. Vivek Murphy. “You start to believe you’re lonely because you’re broken or not lovable.” I didn’t think I was lonely all these years (and I’m still not sure I was) but the more I isolated, the more I became convinced that I was meant to be alone. According to social neurologist John Cacioppo, loneliness makes our brains hyper-alert to any sign of rejection. “It’s a vicious circle, in that each misreading of social nuance becomes evidence for further withdrawal,” writes Laing. I often dismiss any gesture towards me as a pity offer, while reaching out feels desperate, and so I retreat inward.
Here’s the thing though, I don’t think loneliness is actually so harmful. There is something magical about feeling separate from the world. When it’s just me, there is no me in relation to others; no seeing myself from other people’s perspective, I’m simply existing, “porous and borderless,” as Laing describes. I have felt most at home, most content, when I’ve been by myself, anonymous in a place where I know no one. With people comes noise; alone, there is silence. I see the silence not as a state of lack, but as a blank canvas; fertile ground for creativity and discovery. I’ve learned so much about myself and the world, in the quiet of my solitude.
“In certain circumstances, being outside, not fitting in, can be a source of satisfaction, even pleasure,” writes Olivia Laing. “There are kinds of solitude that provide a respite from loneliness, a holiday if not a cure.” When the bubonic plague broke out in 1665, Isaac Newton had to quarantine on his family estate, but as Andreas Kluth writes, rather than being stuck Newton was “liberated”; the time alone led him to develop the theory of gravity.
Unfortunately, I don’t live in some remote mountain cabin off the grid—being a recluse isn’t exactly compatible with urban life (except during a pandemic). I now see how I’ve mistaken myself into thinking I was becoming more resilient, when I was really just sinking into the safety of being alone. I was building walls that have made me both more self-sufficient and perceptive, but also more sensitive to external interaction.
Thankfully, I’m not alone, my hermit idiosyncrasies stand out a little less when everyone else has let their hair grow wild and forgotten how to engage in everyday conversation too. But now that my taste of co-habitation has made me hyper-aware of myself again, I’m realizing just how deeply I retreated, and wondering if all those years I was sheltering in place from my own pain, I was really just hiding. This is my last week living with others, and to be honest, I’m afraid of being alone again, of sinking into the safety and complacency of my solitude. But now I know to welcome that fear.
What if instead of fearing loneliness, we could approach it with curiosity; courageously take advantage of the opportunity to face ourselves?
⚰️ I’m not ready for the new normal. “We are not ready for this mountain of grief,” writes Anne Helen Peterson. “Grief metastasizes when neglected. Processing loss entails acknowledging so much more than sadness.”
👔 We’re more comfy living in sweatpants but what do we lose when we stop worrying about what we wear?
👗 Black representation in fashion still has a long way to go.
📥 Our nagging inbox is making us miserable.
“Our instinct to connect is accompanied by an anxious unease when we neglect these interactions,” writes Cal Newport. “The sheer volume of communication generated by modern professional e-mail directly conflicts with our ancient social circuits.”
🤳 Consider abandoning “the cult of Inbox Zero” and instead “treating email more like a feed—something that can’t be tamed or read to completion, but that can be curated.”
🥜 Are you a natural or unnatural peanut butter person? Your preference says more about you than you think.
🍫 Either way, you might be as excited as I am about Reese’s new peanut butter cups.
🏆 The Golden Globes was like the “awards-ceremony version of a racist Bachelor contestant Instagramming a copy of White Fragility,” what does this mean for the Oscars?
📚 I can’t bring myself to cancel Dr. Seuss.
🗣 Did you know, talking to someone for just 10 minutes can make you feel less lonely?
☎️ A touching comic on loneliness and awkward phone calls.
“If you don’t know how to take care of yourself, it doesn’t matter how much other people give you. It’s just never going to feel like enough.”
If you’re like me and craving a loneliness-curbing show about love that isn’t total fluff, BUT still caters to your short attention span, Feel Good (Netflix) just might fulfill all your a-year-into-the-pandemic watching criteria. With just six under-30 minute episodes, you could easily binge it in one sitting. But you won’t want to because it’s such a delight.
It centers on the relationship between Canadian standup comedy Mae Martin and George, a wealthy Brit who’s never dated a woman before. Mae is self-destructive and recovering from a coke addiction, and neither George, nor her mom (played by Lisa Kudrow) know how to handle her.
It’s real without being cynical; light while still tackling big issues. As Lucy Mangan writes,
“Feel Good should make you feel good. It’s created a deeply humane world where people make mistakes but are not damned, and have flaws that are not fatal, and—despite all the obstacles—connect despite their divides. It is good for almost everything that ails us.”
I chose this episode of I Weigh to hear comedian and actress Margaret Cho speak to her experience as an Asian-American woman in the industry, but ended up loving it for their discussion on living alone.
“Men are bachelors that live in a bachelor pad. We live in the spinster bin, we don’t celebrate the woman’s bachelorette pad,” says host Jameela Jamil. Cho responds, “Growing up in the patriarchy has made me afraid to live alone my entire life. When I finally got to do it, it was so enjoyable that I didn’t want to go back.”
They also talk about the normalization of sexual assault as a kid, and their unique experience of having eating disorders as women of colour.
“Thinness was another part of buying into that dream of: athleticism equals health equals ‘we have money so we can afford to look this way,’ says Cho.
“When you’re different, you try to to assimilate, and that assimilation takes the form of self-hatred and eating disorders. It’s this aspirational dream of immigrants to want to look like white people. The internalized racism takes you to these places of wanting to destroy your body in order to get there.”