Consider This is a column focused on how important elements of a woman's life look in single life and in marriage. This week, we're considering what it's like to experience loneliness as single and married women. One single woman and one married woman have written essays, to be published on different days. On a third day, they respond to each other's experience. The married woman's essay is here. Read their responses here.
There’s an e.e. cummings poem that has stuck with me since I first encountered it in eighth grade. It’s about four girls who spend a day at the beach. In the poem, each of the girls finds a reflection of herself in the things she pays attention to while at the beach. There’s a line that always stops me: “May came home with a smooth round stone / as small as a world and as large as alone.”
The fact that May pays attention to the stone and its connection to loneliness might speak to where she’s been focusing her attention.
Since moving into my late-twenties, the loneliness of the single life is something that has a larger place in my life—or perhaps, like May, it’s simply captivated more of my attention.
Being away as friendships have changed
In my mid-twenties I left my home state to pursue a master’s in creative writing. From night classes to the long stretches of solitude needed to write, I found my schedule often conflicted with the traditional 9 to 5 hours of the young professionals in the area. Though I made some friends in my new city, I couldn’t shake my longing for the relationships back home.
I have a memory from one of the many drives I made between my home state and my new state of listening to a radio station from my hometown until it was too staticky to hear anymore. Losing that station as I got farther and farther from the place I had always called home brought tears. The pain of being between two places—the familiar and the unfamiliar—tore at me during those drives.
But even the familiar I once knew has changed. While in graduate school, many of my single friends back home entered relationships and married. Over and over again, I felt myself making way for the more important relationships in my friends’ lives. The frequent letter exchanges that had supported a friend and me through our early post-undergrad years slowed as she settled down in a new town and made new friends. With other friends, calls became shorter and less frequent, increasingly interrupted by their children. And though a few friends trekked out to see me in the first years of my move, that, too, tapered off as their professional and personal lives became more involved.
The shift in these friendships was so gradual that I hardly noticed it until one night some three or four years into my stay in the new city (which was not so new anymore). I was grappling with anxiety and did not know if there was anyone I could call who would be able to answer, let alone have the time for a heart-to-heart.
Though I’m usually someone who is great at maintaining relationships, I found myself beginning to make less of an effort to be in touch. While I’m chiefly happy for how my friends’ lives have changed in the past couple of years, I continue to feel an underlying sense of loss. I’m now, in certain senses, less needed. And with the responsibilities of work and the fact that we live at a distance, the frequency of our contact has lessened, though our care for each other has not.
Recultivating a desire for community
The fact that friendship looks different after college has reawakened in particular a desire for community, for rootedness. In undergrad, I was part of a community in my dormitory, made up of individuals who had similar values and interests. It was the first place I felt like some of the most important parts of myself—like my faith background and my love for poetry—were not only appreciated, but valued.
Because we lived in such close proximity, the chances of happening upon each other at meals or running into one another in the dorm’s library, social hall, or study rooms was incredibly high. It was in a friend’s dorm room one night during senior year that I realized we were both facing the same struggles—fear of life after college. The fact that we could speak about this in person meant the world, and I remember leaving her room that night feeling less alone. It was walking through one of the study lounges to the dorm library that I was invited to a dance by a peer who knew my morning routine well enough to wait for me right outside the library. It was special to feel seen. I loved the nonchalance of this community—the assurance that friends would be nearby, that we couldn’t help but see each other, and that we were all at the same stage in life. The warmth of this community gave way to a rather chilling reality post-undergrad.
The physical isolation of my grad school days wore me down and led to a mental isolation of sorts. I was just so tired. Because I approached all my work with intensity—and a perfectionist mindset that I could and should be able to handle anything anyone asked of me by myself—when the weekends rolled around, I was too tired to go out and meet new people. But the last couple years have made me reconsider the insular mentality that dominated my mid-twenties.
I continue to learn how to balance my work life and personal life, and I anticipate needing to re-explore how I tend to my friendships. What I’m discovering through this, though, is that I desire to find a place I can call home again. Living the past five years in a relatively nomadic state of life, the pull is now stronger to not only find a job that matters, but a group of people with whom I can share life.
Feeling like the only one, and getting to know my loneliness
Some of my friends have known from an early age that they desired to be wives and mothers. Though as a child and young adult, I never imagined a wedding dress or a husband as part of my future, my singleness has come into sharper focus at recent weddings. At the last reception I attended, I noticed I was the only person among my friends not married, soon-to-be-married, or in a relationship. While at this reception, I was struck by the comment of a well-meaning friend: “You’ll find a man.” When my friends first started getting married, I gloried in not having to use the “plus one” included with my invitation because I could better concentrate on my friend and his or her special day. Now I wish I had someone to ask.
But the truth is, I don’t have someone. In fact, I recently lost a man to geography. We were just never in close proximity to each other, and our life plans seemed always to run in opposite directions (I was in grad school while he was working in another state; he started grad school when I finished). Our relationship itself suffered because of incredible loneliness, as we tried to bridge the eight-plus hours between us with texts and video chats. I sometimes wonder if it was the sheer weight of having each other close only through technology that ultimately made our breakup necessary.
Though I’ve yet to experience the delight of getting to know a man deeply and without the wedge of distance, I’ve begun to more fully appreciate the beauty of getting to love someone in such an exclusive way from witnessing the relationships and marriages of friends. Though I come from a faith tradition that, along with marriage, sees singleness and celibate religious life (i.e., nuns, monks, etc.) as valid life paths, it hasn’t escaped my notice that in everything from movies to books, from Pinterest boards to photography businesses, marriage is perhaps the most common life choice, and, from the culture’s perspective, the ultimate antidote to loneliness. These observations have created a certain “not there yet” feeling that accompanies my loneliness.
But from living with others, and from hearing about the experience of married friends, I know this isn’t true. Loneliness exists in all life states, whether you live alone or in a large family. Without the responsibilities of family life, I perhaps have a little more time to spend with the overwhelming ache this feeling sometimes creates. But as a single person, I think my call is to be creative with my loneliness. It’s certainly prompted me to write—articles, poems, letters to friends. It’s been the inspiration for tea parties, house parties, and random gatherings with roomies for movie nights. It has also made me more aware of others who might be lonely. For the past two years, I’ve worked in community literacy education. Through working with our adult clients, some of whom have spent their whole lives struggling to read, I am often invited to enter lives of semi-isolation and welcome them into a place where they are known and seen. Our lively classes remind me that we don’t have to navigate this world alone.
Shifting my perspective from my own loneliness to how I can harness my loneliness to benefit others has brought me unexpected joy, too. Case in point: for Valentine’s Day this year, I asked my social media friends to let me write something kind about them. A handful of them took me up on it. The exercise turned the day away from the romantic love I do not have to the platonic love that I do have for so many people.
There’s a lot of encouragement directed toward single people to “lean into” this season of life, to “discover” or “rediscover” yourself. In every state in life, loneliness is perhaps a tool for helping us discern what we’re really looking for—in a person, in a job, in a community. But I think what’s more needed than any of that is to simply share who you are in the present moment with the people who are currently around you—be they your co-workers, peers, roommates, family members, or communities. I’ll be the first one to abandon this rather optimistic view, however, when loneliness grows large. But I think and I hope that I won’t stop there, simply dwelling, even drowning, in the loneliness, but rather let that swell of loneliness once again reshape and refine my perspective. I think that this is the truest function of loneliness—it points me toward deeper discovery of the world around me.
Do you have an experience of loneliness that you'd like to share? Tell us here and your response may be published by Verily at a later date.