Living and learning with loneliness of past, present

From the outside, my life might not look lonely. I have a great family, have a handful of close friends and belong to a robust community. On campus, I was never the most popular, but I was satisfied with the few strong connections I slowly and intentionally built over the last 3.75 years. I tried to surround myself with others by hosting dinners, running, volunteering, laughing and playing with housemates. I led prayer meetings, tried a few sports teams and went on leadership retreats. I planned meals, library study sessions, coffee shop getaways, hikes and daily phone calls to connect with family. Although I am proudly (highly) introverted, I never lacked friendship or community at any stage of my life—including college. 

That said, I struggled a lot with loneliness at Vassar. On almost a daily basis, I had this insatiable desire for intimacy that was never fully met by the friends or faculty around me. I didn’t understand why pangs of loneliness would hit me so often, given how I avoided solitude with a vengeance despite probably needing more of it. Above all else, I feared eating alone. At one point sophomore year, I attempted to schedule both lunch and dinner with a different friend every day, seven days a week. That came to a weekly total of 14 meals with 14 different people: a steady rotation of friends and acquaintances from Sunday to Saturday. This rhythm was exhausting and unsustainable (not to say nearly impossible with so many schedules to coordinate). By the end of each week I felt just as disintegrated and lonely as I did at the start. 

By the time senior year arrived, I thought I had finally defeated any remnant of loneliness through the housemates and friendships that were secured and strengthened after three years. But I was wrong—loneliness lingered. This persistent reality hit me in the fall after making a “gourmet” meal with a close friend followed by enjoying games and a movie. When she left after hours of being together, I immediately ached with emptiness. She probably didn’t know that I washed the dishes in tears at 10 p.m. I was confronted with my raw self again, uninterrupted by her warm company. It hurt every time someone left my SoCo.

This spring, my (almost daily) running buddy and confidant left to study abroad. The ache returned. When she was still on campus, we spent Saturdays in every season running on the rail trail to the Walkway Over the Hudson followed by a hard-earned brunch. Her absence felt heavy and left me vulnerable to a specific kind of loneliness—one incurred by a huge void after a hundred runs with a friend. Now I spent those long runs along the rail trail, hours before the campus (or world) woke up, alone in silence. Sometimes I felt lonely in my studies, too. Certain days I would sit at a long seminar table feeling acutely disconnected from my academic peers, who seemed so much smarter than me. They were able to articulate solutions to the world’s most pressing issues with impressive acuity. I felt like a lonely imposter in a room of world changers. This is all to say: Loneliness has followed me closely during the last 3.75 years. Sure, there were consistent glimmers of deep connection throughout, but the stabs of loneliness never really disappeared despite my best efforts. Today, COVID-19 has only deepened these lonely experiences for many of us. However this reality has decreased for me since being home surrounded by family who know and love me and especially after delving into a newly-released book written on this very subject.

Recently, my mom’s colleague Jason Gaboury wrote a timely book on loneliness rooted in Christian spirituality called “Wait With Me. This book has been an invaluable resource for my own reflection on this isolating global pandemic and my college years. He asked me to write a review before it officially comes out in May and I obliged. I went into the reading eager and ready to read about the subject so familiar to me but rarely talked about in public. I was intensely curious why someone like him—a busy working father deeply connected to a thriving Anglican community in New York City—had something to say about loneliness. If he hadn’t dodged loneliness altogether, what hope could I ever have? Yet at the beginning of the book Gaboury records a pivotal conversation he had with a Friar Ugo, who told him seven life-changing words as a young adult: “To be human is to be lonely.” Throughout his book, Gaboury explores how loneliness is experienced by all humans everywhere throughout history. I was not alone in my loneliness. 

At the same time, Gaboury explores how, when leveraged, loneliness can be a powerful teacher—even a necessary one. He says that loneliness is not negative, or even to be avoided. To him, loneliness is a helpful, spiritual signal that we were not made for this world, or made to walk through it emotionally, physically or spiritually alone. Still, the most influential people throughout history have needed to reckon with loneliness to grow in understanding of themselves and others. He also cited Biblical narratives of lonely legends who were forced to reckon with themselves in their deepest, darkest moments of solitude, thousands of years ago. These narratives which are held so dear in the Christian community are reimagined in this book to address the loneliness of humanity. He talks about the utter loneliness of Joseph in captivity, Moses orphaned at birth, Jesus abandoned by his Father on the cross, Esther waiting for an answer in her palace. Yet each lonely moment or season pushed them to their knees until they entered into a deeper intimacy with the divine. This insightful read on these familiar characters showed me how transformative loneliness can be.  

Gaboury described the possibility of what he calls “desert spirituality” in lonely times in our lives. Profoundly terrible transformations can occur in the desert of COVID-19—homelessness, unemployment, war, economic recession, climate change, hiring freezes. Being quarantined in our homes or in a lonely relationship might feel like a desert where we feel isolated in our grief about the sorry state of the world, and by the sorry state of ourselves. What do most of us do in the desert of our lives and global reality? Instead of walking through it as wayfarers in silence, most of us try to run through with our necks craning, looking for the next oasis of success and freedom. We aimlessly scroll through Instagram. We mindlessly eat 50 peanut M&M’s. We binge an entire season of Grey’s Anatomy. We go on a two hour run to get muscle cramps and feel out of breath to avoid feeling complicated emotions like grief, confusion or fear. We might drink or try drugs. We spend $150 and two hours shopping for shoes we will never wear to a party that might not happen at all. We are experts at avoiding this universal human experience called loneliness. I think everyone is struggling with it in one way or another during this pandemic. 

But the more I consider Gaboury’s discussion of loneliness, the more I see its profound ability to shape us in constructive ways—if we let it. Although I didn’t love it at the time, I see how much depth, creativity and understanding I developed through my lonely moments in college. Some of the best insights about myself and the world were unveiled through hours of unwanted solitude, when I surrendered in vulnerability and humility to my lonely hours. For example, I thought of my thesis topic during a solo run on the Vassar farm after a busy summer of avoiding the subject. I constructed the plot of my creative short story on a walk around the lake one Sunday late at night. I had my most meaningful personal and spiritual breakthroughs in the quiet room of the library long after everyone had wandered home for bed. When I was sick and housemates were out, I relished an uninterrupted viewing of this year’s Best Picture film “Parasite,” which left me enlightened and changed. I’m not saying we should live in perpetual loneliness or that we should not pursue friendship and community at every stage of life, but I am saying there will be inevitable moments of disconnection. When we don’t have the power to change our circumstances, we can either repress these lonely moments, or learn to embrace them. 

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