It’s Friday night I’m alone as I write. There are a lot of lonely nights as a writer, nights where I hole myself up and let my mind move through my fingers. But I’m not alone in my forlorn feelings: We’re all human, all of one mind, all alone in our own ways.
To appease our loneliness, we nervously jostle around in our pockets, crane our necks down toward five-inch screens, and twiddle our thumbs over avatars of our friends, family, and former lovers. We can go months without seeing a friend and still know – or think we know – all there is to know about them. “Catching up with a friend” has gone from beer or coffee or conversation to “Yeah, I saw his last post on Facebook. Pretty funny!”
We’re impersonal with one another and I’d like to take responsibility for my part in the destruction of social society: I apologize. I’ve clicked “like” on your post and not called to congratulate you on your new baby (she was beautiful, by the way). I’ve browsed your feed and thought “Well, I’m sure glad they’re doing well,” instead of paying you a visit (sorry, I was busy crafting some very mediocre pieces of writing and Facebook statuses). I’ve seen your status and thought, wow, I’m glad I know such great people, when I haven’t seen you in years (really, though: that looked like a fun vacation, graduation, and later, birthing process. I’m glad to know of you).
I’ll admit it now in the first week of Chicago’s cold-snapping winds: I’m lonely. I’m a lonely man who has a hard time meeting new people in a friendly or romantic way. I grew up as an only child and this solo state feels comfortable, so I often step in my own way; I gatekeep myself from human interaction in favor of solitude. I rarely see the many people I loosely refer to as my friends.
I know that paragraph was tough to read; it was tough to write, too. There are few combinations of words sadder than “I’m lonely,” but I often find the letters bouncing around the inside of my skull, falling, and neatly arranging themselves into the same combination of letters – and to think I was so close to the anagram “ill money”.
In these moments of loneliness, I’ll flip over my phone – purposefully placed face down to avoid its unrelenting, undead messaging – to click the round black button and… nope, no new texts. No social media alerts. No Tinder dates, thank god. Nothing to give me that rush of dopamine and let me feel, if just for a second, in the company of friends. Around me, books pile up next to a single empty wine glass. Perhaps Raymond Carver can make me feel less lonely, I think, before realizing that Carver only writes stories about soon-to-be companionless drunks who are lonelier than I am. “Hey, at least my wife isn’t leaving me,” I say to myself as a cold compress of comfort.
Don’t let my grumbling about loneliness fool you: I really do enjoy solitude about 63.5 percent of the time. I enjoy reveling in luscious spaces of time where I can read, write, listen to music, and meditate sans interruption, where I can eat a block of cheese and not hear anyone say “Jesus Christ, that’s a lot of cheese.” But there are days where I find myself sick of my solo thought process, sick of seeing my hand scribble away on paper, sick of the same songs, sick of sitting in silence trying to focus on my own breath, sick of eating blocks of cheese and later wishing there was someone to chide me for my dairy-induced fartiness.
I often wonder if I’m alone in my loneliness – I can’t be, right? I look around on trains, on sidewalks and at restaurants and see groups of people breaking off into their own human-machine duos: them and their phone. The numbers seem to confirm my hunch: A 2016 Harris Poll by the American Osteopathic Association found that 72 percent of Americans experience loneliness, with one-third saying they feel lonely at least once a week. I just flipped my phone over, clicked the button, and checked to see if any of my lonely brothers had sisters had texted me; nope.
So I’m not alone, then? Perhaps it would take some meeting of all life’s lonely souls to convince me otherwise. But please don’t get me wrong: I have many friends, friends I consider to be family, friends who can make me feel less lonely within a whisper. However, whispers are often all I get: Many have become long-distance friends, moving away from Chicago and settled into adulthood across the world. Some have never lived here at all. These friends exist as a comforting voice in some faraway place – a beautiful tribute to modern communication – but I wish I could see them more. I wish I could walk in their presence. I wish we could exist together beyond the connections of satellites.
Others friends live in Chicago, but we’re all busy people at this age. I’m 31 now, an age my friend Trevor once told me was when “I really started thinking about things and taking them seriously.” His prediction has been spot on, I find. We’ve all been thinking and taking life seriously, mostly by ourselves with the occasional brainstorm session over text messages. We’re busy people, my friends and I, and I’ve found that as I get older, we all get busier. When I’m not busy writing about being lonely, I’m working as a writer, sometimes creating things people actually want to read in a notably lonely profession. Just as I write for hours on end, my friends work their jobs for hours on end – cooking, communicating, leading therapy sessions – only getting home for enough time to make themselves a meal, browse their screen, sleep, and wake up for the next round. We can think tenderly of each other and still be ships crossing only in the nebulous night.
I should also be a bit more honest with you and with myself: I have friends who I could see on nights where I’m wrapped up in my blanket of loneliness. Unbeknownst to each other – or perhaps known and not cared for – we each sit at home alone, wishing for something more than ourselves but not willing to make ourselves uncomfortable by move outside of our solipsism. We go beyond missing the comfort of being sad, as the old Nirvana lyrics said, and adroitly roll around in our own despondence. It feels meaningful, this forlorn feeling we roil around in. When the feeling becomes too much to bear, our eyes turn to the pixels of the screen to get our fix and soothe our sadness. By the time we think, Hey, I coulda called… we’ve snuggled ourselves too deeply into our dissatisfaction.
There’s a shame I feel about admitting my loneliness on the internet. Why should I be the one to bellyache about my feelings of alienation? Why should my vulnerability be on stage? Won’t people think pathetically of me; “Aw, Hal needs a friend and a woman. Let me comment a frowny face on his post.”
No, I know – it’s OK to have feelings. It’s OK to feel lonely and admit it. There’s nothing wrong with feeling something human, something existential, something lonely. But I know that you, the reader, are likely sitting alone while reading this piece and feeling some sense of loneliness yourself. You may be on a train or at a restaurant or sitting at a cafe surrounded by people, yet you’re also alone. Why else would you be craning your neck down to look at a screen if not for being bitten but the bug of loneliness?
But if we’re all so alone, what’s stopping us from converging? I could, after all, join you in that train or out at that restaurant or in that cafe. We could put our phones down, look each other in the eyes, smile and say… how the fuck do you have a real-life conversation, again?
And then, in unison, we’d both fidget toward our phones’ little black buttons.