Dedicated to the memory of Leelah Alcorn (11/15/97- 12/28/14), who I never had the privilege to know, and Christian Medved (05/13/94- 02/06/13), who I did.
“Without community, there can be no liberation.”
– Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”
Dear John & Paul, We Kind of Do Know Where All the Lonely People Come From
This month, a writer and publisher named Kristen Radtke came out with an article in The Atlantic called “What’s the Loneliest You’ve Ever Felt?”
Describing the occasion of her research about loneliness, Radtke explains that Americans continue to suffer under the influence of “notions of self-reliance and the attendant bootstrap-pulling, frontier-conquering, and make-it-on-your-own ideologies.” She writes,
“Researchers claim that loneliness will be classified an epidemic by 2030, and the former U.S. Surgeon General has described loneliness as one of the country’s most pressing health risks. The effects of social isolation are so severe that studies have shown that it actually has the power to remap the makeup of human cells. So what happens to a society in which independence is so often the goal and isolation is frequently the result?”
I came across Radtke’s project at a time when I have been doing a lot of thinking about the ways in which loneliness and social justice intertwine (hey 2018, you unapologetically fascist tapeworm). The topic has been on my mind even more often lately because I have been reading David Wojnarowicz’s incredible memoir Close to the Knives, and considering the ways in which the AIDS epidemic produced a generation of lonely people by taking their friends, partners, and loved ones away from them.*
Thinking about loneliness in the context of the world around me also makes me think of the immigrant families who are ripped apart from each other by deportation or the threat of starvation and violence in their home countries. I once read about the immigrant mothers who work housekeeping jobs in the U.S. and spend the entire day with FaceTime open so that they can feel like they are at home with their kids. I cannot imagine a deeper kind of missing: the obligation to take care of another person’s home, and perhaps even their children, so that your own can survive another day.
Ultimately, thinking about the social and political sources of loneliness makes the moments in which I have felt most lonely seem shallow in comparison. Eating lunch alone, for example, is nothing like watching purple sores form on the unlined face of the love of your life, to see him dead by winter, or watching your children’s stomachs bloat from malnutrition. Not to mention countless other examples of deep, expansive aloneness in this country of ours: the dehumanization of Native Americans as they were shorn like sheep, forbidden to speak their own languages, violated, and killed until many were the last survivors of their tribes; the isolation of trans women like Leelah Alcorn, who killed herself at 17 after her homophobic parents put her in conversion therapy; and the alienation of the brave people who endure bullying and prejudice as a result of living with disabilities.** But if I have learned anything from my years in therapy, it is that the politics of the oppression Olympics are never productive. They do not help ourselves or those enduring situations that we perceive to be worse. In other words, we can acknowledge our advantages at the same time as we acknowledge that our suffering is very real to us. In light of that idea, I will (nervously) share some of my loneliest days with you all.
Peep My Privileged Malaise: An Opera in Three Acts
I grew up in a loving family, so most of my experiences with loneliness resulted from the difficulty I had making friends in school and forging the kind of connections I wanted with others. It isn’t easy to write about these moments, but I think that what is beautiful about Radtke’s project is its capacity to bring us together through a very elemental human experience. In these “divided times” (a cliche I find fitting here, but also somewhat gross-sounding), we need to practice vulnerability more than ever, so I will write a few of them here–even if it chips away at my pride a little bit.
1) In eighth grade, we went a class trip to tour colleges. With “alarming specificity”, as Radtke suggests, I remember sitting alone in the back of the bus on an eight hour bus ride listening to Modest Mouse’s “Dramamine” (a song that appropriately featured on the 1996 album This a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About) on repeat on my pink iPod Video. I remember being stuck on one line of that song in particular: “I think I knew my geography pretty damn well,” even though I didn’t quite understand what it meant. Everyone was singing and laughing together in the front of the bus, a scene that was pretty familiar to me at the time, and I remember feeling like I would never know what it was like to have fun with people my own age. That sixteen-hour trip felt like the longest and quietest period of my life, a single, aching moment stretched over the state of California. Today, it makes me sad that I gave up so quickly on the possibility of an existence that included companionship.
2) I went through a pretty exquisitely painful breakup in my sophomore year of college. At the time, I was living in a house that was relatively far away from campus, and I used to walk for thirty-five minutes or so to get to and from my classes. Most days, I would walk to campus, go to class, and then come home to read before sleeping. Sometimes, I would take the bus downtown, so I could walk along the waterfront or go to the bookstore, but other than that, I barely went anywhere or saw anyone socially. During this ghosting era of my relationship, my ex-boyfriend would occasionally leave me messages in the drafts of a joint email account that we used to send each other messages and music. My day-to-day life felt wholly centered on walking to school in the morning and constantly refreshing that email account at night. I was waiting for any kind of message from the person that I loved, feeling pathetic and crazy and lost. At some point, I felt like I was losing the ability to talk to other people casually, as if I could not pretend to relate to their normal, busy lives.
3) I had the opportunity to study abroad as a junior in college, and ended up choosing to live in Granada, Spain. There, I lived with one of my best friends in a host family’s piso near the Plaza de Toros. One night, we were all at a club that catered to American international students. Lately, I had been feeling like a lot of my friends didn’t actually want to experience the country, its culture, or what people in town were really like, but instead just wanted to party in a foreign city with cheaper drinks. It was sort of frustrating, but the reality was, I was letting my own bitterness exaggerate that reality. In fact, there were a lot of beautiful, exploratory people in my program, I was just too blind and self-interested to see things for what they really were.
Anyway, that night, I left this club feeling sort of angry and off and alone. I was kind of tired of ~the greatest hits of Pitbull***~ and middle-aged pulpos yanking strands of my hair as I walked by. And though I was sober as a judge (as a gopher? as a church mouse? I’m not sure which it is, but the point is was I not drinking at that time.), of course I got lost. Even though I wasn’t all that far from home, and the streets were filled with people, I was already feeling on edge that day, and after rooting around for the right narrow street for a while, I started panicking at some point, tripping over cobblestones in my heels and getting all teary-eyed. It was one of those moments where the trigger for an existential crisis isn’t itself something major, you just find yourself in an inconvenient situation and then, all of the sudden, you find yourself asking what am I doing here?, why am I the way that I am?, and why you can’t I seem to talk or act or exist in the precise way that I want to? It was the straw that broke the lonely camel’s back, or something like that.
At that moment, a young man and his partner, a beautiful woman with a wide, smile, approached me on the street and asked me if I was okay. I said yes, but we both agreed that the answer was probably no. This couple was–incredibly–from Sinaloa, the state in Mexico where I spent the happiest days of my childhood, a sure sign from the powers that be. It’s hard to explain now, but in the most non-creepy way you can possibly imagine, the man wiped a few tears from my temple, pointed me the way home, and asked me if I needed help finding a taxi.
I end on this slightly maudlin tear-wiping scene to assert that thankfully, not all of the loneliest moments of our lives end in flatness or tragedy or even a more intense form of loneliness, though all of those progressions are common. Instead, by talking and writing about them, comparing them, and studying their contours– the ways in which they are caused by both our own actions and the things about society that we can’t hope to control– maybe we can see something worthwhile in the loneliest moments of our lives.
How Can We Be There for One Another?
We are given so many opportunities to reach out to one another. Just last week, I was substitute teaching at a local elementary school, and I saw a student sitting alone on the blacktop at recess, her eyes full of tears that had not fallen yet. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that she felt left out, and like no one really wanted to play with her. I could actually hear my heart cracking while I thrummed my fingers on the blacktop, thinking of how to respond. I thought of vague platitudes that I heard, sitting alone on a low fence at my own elementary recesses (“Of course they want to play with you!” “Have you asked that group of kids over there if they want to play?”), but I couldn’t bring myself to say any of them to her, knowing exactly how useless they would seem. I sat her with silently, trying to give her company without clichés, thinking of other times I had failed to comfort another solitary human being. Once, for example, in college, another freshman asked to sit down with me at lunch, and I gave a stupid, nervous excuse without thinking about leaving in a just a minute. As I went back to my dorm that day, I felt like a hypocrite. The universe was giving me this chance to show someone community– to remind him that although every person contains a complex and singular universe, our elemental differences are ultimately negligible– and I rejected him because I felt momentarily awkward.
As I drove home from teaching that day, I vowed that I would work harder to extend my hand and heart to those who feel like they have no one and who are convinced that they are insignificant. Sometimes, this requires us to give up little pieces of our own pride– kind of like the old Rainbow Fish methodology, but in a way that allows those pieces of pride to transform, to be worn as a feeling of comfort or solidarity on the skin of someone else. Though he was talking about creating art at the time, David Foster Wallace once wrote about “having the discipline to talk out the part of yourself that can love rather than the part of yourself that wants to be loved.”**** In my mind, as we confront this epidemic of loneliness, that kind of discipline feels less like a virtue and more like an obligation.
* There are so many incredible pieces of art devoted to the AIDS epidemic. For those who may not be interested in Wojnarowicz’s lyrical memoir, I highly recommend the documentary How to Survive a Plague, which focuses primarily on ACT UP. If you are an American who cares at all about issues of public health, the creation of legislation, governmental corruption, and human rights, I believe that this documentary is required reading.
** Some particularly inspiring people in my life have been Lizzie Velasquez, a woman with Marfanoid-progeroid-lipodystrophy syndrome, who internet trolls labeled the “Ugliest Woman in the World,”and Sam Berns, an amazing young man who lived with progeria.
***Caveat: “Timber” is the greatest pop song of 2013. Change my mind.
**** This quotation comes to us from an interview with DFW originally published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction:
Though I could include some classic *white-man-experiences-existential-dread* texts here (i.e. Notes from Underground, Walden, or really anything from the Western canon), for further reading on loneliness, I am going to suggest just a few books here that explore uncommon angles of the phenomenon.
Exile and Pride by Eli Clare: I keep returning to this book, especially as the Trump Administration continues to denigrate and devalue the lives of transgender people. Clare does an incredible job talking about what it is like to grow up queer and disabled in a rural town (Port Orford, Oregon), and importantly highlights the ways in which queer Americans living outside of urban centers have survived isolation and exile.
Stranger in the Woods, by Michael Finkel: This work of nonfiction is Finkel’s account of Christopher Knight, who lived in the woods of Maine for 27 years without speaking to another person (with the exception of one brief “hello” to a hiker passing by). Finkel examines famous hermits both religious and secular to examine why Knight may have retreated to the woods. The most fascinating element of the story, though, is the way in which Knight resists classification and negates our attempts to save him from his alleged psychological distress– so much so, in fact, that removing him from his peaceful solitude feels less like a rescue and more like a kind of violence. An easy but provocative piece.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit: This book, which I also featured in my last post, made me rethink what it means to be both lost and alone. With her impeccable attention to historical and political detail, Solnit examines everything from Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s life among the indigenous peoples of the Americas to the color blue in order to explore facets of aloneness that you may never have considered before.
If you feel comfortable, share your loneliest moment(s) with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.