In a culture in which singles, herbivore men, and old people are abound and overflowing, there is a list of various activities that people rattle off to each other in order to determine the level of independence they have achieved. Can you eat ramen by yourself? Karaoke? Watch a movie at a theater? Sip a cool G&T or perhaps an Old Fashioned at a bar? Go out for yakiniku, grill each individual piece of meat at a shichirin for one? And what, pray tell, are your thoughts on solo travel?
In other words, how comfortable are you with your own company?
I’ve done all of those things, save for a bar and yakiniku by myself. There’s a brief tinge of embarrassment that precedes certain activities, like when you enter the ramen restaurant to see that it’s solely occupied by hordes of pot-bellied middle-aged men, when the usher rips your movie ticket stub and you shuffle into the theater clutching at your tub of caramel popcorn like a fatass loser, or when you show up to a bicycle tour through Bangkok and you are absolutely surrounded by athletic white couples with ridiculously defined calf muscles and you feel it in your very bones: this was a mistake. But there is also a certain pleasure in loosely mapping out your own itinerary for the day, watching a late-night show in a nearly empty theater, and singing yourself hoarse without embarrassment in a tiny little karaoke room. I’m okay, most of the time, being by myself. Other times, the silence and loneliness is so overwhelming that it fairly fills up the other 30% of me that’s not composed of water.
It’s easy to make up excuses. I’m an INFP, I moved around too much, people are consistently disappointing. It feels sometimes as if everyone already has an established group, a solid clique of friends that they have years of history with. A singular best friend. Everyone already has other people. It’s like dating, really. You say, “We should grab a bite sometime!” with nonchalant casualness, and they agree, and you don’t want to suggest two or three specific dates and a list of restaurants to boot because that’s not cool and their social schedule is probably chock-full already, and so the plans float like a stretched out piece of cotton candy, never to materialize.
Science says that loneliness is a killer. That divorced women are likelier to live longer lives than divorced men, partly because women usually have a robust social network whereas the wife doubles as a spouse and a best friend, their only friend, for many men. Incredibly, the lifespans of divorced men become even shorter than that of the average male. Malcolm Gladwell mentioned a study of Italian-American immigrants in Roseto, Pennsylvania in his book Outliers — they’d altered their diet significantly because of the unavailability of some ingredients in their newly adopted country, struggled with obesity, smoked heavily, and by all appearances were quite unhealthy — and yet hardly anyone under 65 died of heart disease, despite the fact that it was a raging epidemic in the States. The study concluded that the strong social networks of the immigrants likely had a profound effect on their health — they all lived with their extended families, visited one another on a daily basis, and were active members of various social organizations, including the church.
My “life line” that supposedly determines the length of my life, runs uninterrupted like a gently sloping river until the end of my palm. The Chinese characters of my name include the characters for “tree” and “a trillion”, which signify long life. I’m also biologically female, and Asian at that, so statistically speaking, I will probably outlive most people reading this. Yet I see studies like the abovementioned and I find myself worrying that I won’t be able to fulfill my destiny, dying at maybe 61 years old instead of 117, robbed of more than a half-century.
I don’t know how socially acceptable it is to admit that you’re lonely. To other people, out loud. I mean, what do you say to that? My condolences?
Science also says that a pill for loneliness is in the works. If such a pill were to be released over-the-counter for public consumption, I wonder if I would I take it. What would I feel instead in the absolute absence of loneliness? Would the feeling simply be replaced by a soporific, vague sort of happiness, or a peaceful numbness? At times, the necessity of loneliness as a human emotion seems rather useless, much like the role of mosquitoes in the ecosystem or jobhunting in the midst of a pandemic. It seems like something that ought to be fixed, taped over.
Would you take the pill? But in the absence of a pill, how does one go about fixing loneliness? One might toss out carelessly, “Make friends” and “Meet new people,” but it goes without saying that this is like telling a drowning person to “just swim”; in other words, easier said than done. In any case, you cannot expect a person to fix you; that is not their job and too heavy a burden for one person to shoulder. I think that when you learn to be comfortable in your own company and feel a complete absence of shame in your aloneness, that is the moment when loneliness turns to solitude — a choice. It’s reassuring too, to know that you’re not an anomaly for feeling this way. Olivia Liang draws on her own experiences of loneliness in her book “The Lonely City” and visits the artworks of several established artists with a common theme of loneliness in their creations and personal lives, such as Andy Warhol, Nan Goldin, and Edward Hopper, drawing comfort from the universality of this particular human emotion.
“What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.” (Olivia Liang, The Lonely City)
It used to be that I openly bemoaned the fact that I had 1.5 friends and felt intense shame in eating alone in public, obsessed over relationships and the idea of being in love. Since then, false friends fell away, my heart broke twice in spectacular fashion, and I’ve not emerged victorious yet, but it’s getting better. I can count the number of close friends I have on one hand, but I cherish each and every one of them; we go out for dinners one-on-one and hours pass before we know it. I truly understand now that it’s quality over quantity. My family always wants to know what I’ve eaten and they love me in a way that no-one else quite will. I don’t believe in singular soulmates, The One, a truant Prince Charming who maybe fell off his white horse and hit his head in a bad way and passed out unconscious on the side of the road, that’s why he hasn’t showed up yet — but multiple soulmates, people you just click with, that ignite an immediate recognition, a jolt. I’ve felt it before and I’ll feel it again.
You’re lonely, but you’re not alone. Let’s be lonely together, and this too, shall pass.