I’ve joked with a number of friends this year that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was gifted with a few months of training for it.
In January 2020, I had just come off a blissful holiday season. The weeks leading to the holidays were merry and bright, and I had felt a sense of magic and nostalgia in the season, more so than usual. I was surprised then when the new year rolled around and with it, sadness and loneliness.
In the weeks that followed New Year’s Eve, the flu and other strange viruses passed through my groups of friends. Because of the sickness, and because I live alone and already worked remotely before the pandemic, the impact for me was that there were entire weeks when the only people I saw were strangers at the grocery store or my co-working space.
The issue I was facing wasn’t lack of friends—I am very fortunate to have many friends. They were all just sick or extremely busy with work and life. And I, while also busy and sick for a time, had a bit more free time and energy for socializing. I also, by nature of living and working alone, needed connection more than others.
I found myself tearful often and frustrated by the lack of loving human interaction and touch. I was beginning to feel anonymous in a city where I know so many people.
Friends were finally feeling better and social events were starting to fill my calendar again when the stay-at-home orders swept the nation. Once again, I was at home—alone (though at least this time around, Zoom happy hours were filling my calendar).
When we were alone together
“We’re all in this together” was an oft-repeated phrase during the stay-at-home period. In the disorienting first few weeks of the pandemic, many of us can attest to the relief in knowing that this was a collective crisis—from adjusting to work from home life to finding toilet paper, we were in this together. Thanks to social distancing, all of us were seeing friends and family members less; all of us were in some sense more alone.
I assuaged my discouragement about being alone by problem solving out loud with friends and family. I talked to friends about my fear of not touching another person for weeks on end (and found that I had a few friends who agreed that a hug at a greeting was safe and essential for us both). I called friends and family a bit more, and expressed the emotions I was processing. My fears and concerns were relatable to my loved ones, since they were living through this crisis, too—and so I felt less lonely and a bit more connected to others.
But as the days and weeks ticked by, “We’re all in this together” was starting to sound a little too trite.
To begin, my suffering in the pandemic was feeling very different than those who had lost loved ones, jobs or businesses, or sleep and peace as they worked grueling hours in the hospitals. Further, it was becoming more apparent that social distancing would be with us for longer than the stay-at-home orders—and while I’d done a good job of distracting myself from my loneliness, I wasn’t sure I could continue the isolation and distance from loving interactions for much longer.
The longer the loneliness persisted, the more I began to wonder if it was a feeling I needed to understand more.
Early in the pandemic, A passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring was circulated through my social media networks and family text exchange. It reads:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Its message was clear to me.
It seemed the only way out was through, and that meant wrestling with the root causes of my loneliness—especially since it started before the pandemic—and it meant deciding what to do with what I have been given in life.
When we can’t ignore loneliness
Loneliness is defined as “the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it.”
By this definition, loneliness is driven by a mindset—a belief you’re not as connected to those around you as you’d like or should be. This explains why we can be in a room full of people we know and love and still feel lonely. It also can explain, at least in part, why Zoom happy hours are not nearly as enriching as in-person happy hours. We know what the real thing feels like, and while we may understand why it can’t happen right now, we’re still craving that physical connection that no technological substitute will fulfill.
This definition also explains why sometimes time spent alone is not lonely and other times it’s agonizingly so—the heart wants what the heart wants. (Of course, there are instances in which loneliness is the result of true isolation—of not having people you can really connect with, and this reflection is not meant to diminish or ignore the true suffering in those instances.)
“The things that make us sad tell us what we desire,” a wise person I know has repeated to me many times before.
While loneliness is typically seen as undesirable, and persistent loneliness and isolation can produce serious health issues, some experiences with loneliness can aid us in our life. Loneliness can be an invitation to consider what we desire in life; to consider how we interact with the people around us.
For instance, as I examined my own loneliness during quarantine, I found that my instinct to “cure” my loneliness with a connection with a loved one wasn’t always correct.
Sometimes my lack of contentment wasn’t actually loneliness; sometimes it was fatigue, boredom, hunger, or a desire to be inspired by something beautiful. Sometimes, I found that connection with a character in a book or a movie soothed my feelings of disconnection. Sometimes what I really needed was a good playlist or movie, a satisfying meal, or a bath and an early bedtime.
In short, without a social scene tempting me into distraction, I found I paid more attention to what I really needed on any given day.
Admittedly, this all sounds like pretty basic self-care, but it was a year, after all, when many of us learned how to appreciate the ordinary a bit more. And I know I’m not the only woman who struggles to prioritize what I need or desire over a perception of what I should be doing.
As a single woman, socializing can sometimes feel like an opportunity I shouldn’t let go to waste: “You might meet a man.” “You could miss out and in turn feel left out.” “You don’t want to be seen as someone who doesn’t have anywhere to go on Saturday night.” These are the thoughts that push me to go out instead of stay in, and sometimes I need that push, because we all know a new boyfriend, friends, or community won’t appear at our doors when we wish upon a star.
But with the opportunity of a social life stripped away, with little ability to change the circumstances, I discovered that being alone, and even feeling lonely, provided clarity for what I actually am desiring in a given moment and how to act when I am with people.
When loneliness makes our lives better
Pieces of my life before the pandemic have returned to almost normal—I am fortunate I’m able to meet with loved ones with more ease.
Yet, I’ve found the prolonged stay-at-home orders have changed my appetite for socializing. I’m still eager to see loved ones and meet new people, but I’m less bashful about admitting I’m in need of a night in.
I’ve also developed a keener sense of how to direct social interactions toward greater connection and meaning. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly disconnected from my loved ones, I suggest we shorten our small talk and instead dive into a more intimate topic such as what is bringing us life right now or what is making us laugh. Sometimes, when I’m meeting new people, I ask them a more personal question, like “What’s been the best part of your week this week?” instead of “What do you do?”
In a year where loneliness threatened to bring me down, I’ve instead come to welcome it—not as something I like to experience, but as something I need to experience from time to time, in order to better connect to myself and the world around me. Nobody likes to feel alone, no one likes to be lonely—and facilitating authentic connection often starts with being more intentional about how we connect.