The Power of Loneliness

I recently started reading “The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing, and it got me thinking about the concept of loneliness. I am no stranger to loneliness. There have been moments and seasons in my life where I’ve felt loneliness as an overwhelming force, and others where I’ve sensed it simply as a dull, constant ache. The word has taken on a negative connotation in our culture and is often stigmatized– if you’re lonely, there must be something wrong with you or what you’re doing. People are slow to empathize with you because they view it as a self-inflicted pain, as if it’s your fault for choosing not to be social.

But that description never fit me. I have plenty of lovely friends, I am ambitious, I pour into the activities and people around me. I have a caring family. Essentially, I’m not some sort of social pariah or outcast. I have never chosen to be lonely. I am utterly normal. Still, I get lonely.

Of course there is a marked difference between being lonely and being alone. People often say defensively, “I’m alone but I’m not lonely!” as if being lonely were the worst thing in the world. As an introvert, I love being alone. Sometimes I’m alone and could not be more happy! Who doesn’t love a nice coffee date with yourself once in a while? But other times I am alone and feel the deep, pervasive melancholy of loneliness.

Laing says, “A long time back, I used to listen to a song by Dennis Wilson. It was from Pacific Ocean Blue, the album he made after The Beach Boys fell apart. There was a line in it I loved: Loneliness is a very special place…It isn’t always easy to see the truth of Wilson’s statement, but over the course of my travels I’ve come to believe that he was right, that loneliness is by no means a wholly worthless experience, but rather one that cuts right to the heart of what we value and what we need. Many marvelous things have emerged from the lonely city: things forged in loneliness, but also things that function to redeem it.”

I agree that loneliness can indeed be a very special place. In fact, some of my best writing was produced in a state of loneliness. It is often when I think most deeply, observe most thoroughly and feel most creative. Of course, it is a writer’s job to make sure they can produce work in all emotional states, but loneliness should not be discounted as one of them! On the other hand, I’ve also made some of the worst decisions while lonely, whether it be an impulsive purchase, an ill-advised romance or an over commitment to something. That’s the thing about loneliness: it’s a double edged sword.

Laing goes on to say that there is a certain flavor of urban loneliness, when you are surrounded by countless people yet lack intimate human connection. I see this all the time at my university. Pepperdine actually ranks above the national average for loneliness on college campuses. It is one of the main issues here and can easily be sensed among the student body, particularly Freshmen and Sophomores. Pepperdine is an acquaintance culture, fraught with ‘we should hang out sometime’ but lacking real substance.

I remember Sunday nights were particularly lonely my freshman year. Back home, Sundays were always been a family day. My dad and brothers would play basketball after church while my mom and I enjoyed an afternoon ‘just us girls.’ Then we’d eat a meal together followed by an episode of “60 Minutes” while eating ice cream. Now I sat in the empty college cafeteria trying to remember if I’d finished all my homework and feeling that I was somehow missing out on this ‘quintessential college experience’ everyone else was privy to.

Another lonely time was when I first arrived in Frankfurt, Germany last summer. I didn’t know anyone and the city was large and unfamiliar. I would walk the streets quietly, trying to familiarize myself with the place, stopping in a café for lunch, trying my best to order in broken German. My book was my best friend those first few weeks, a barrier between myself and the scary unknown.

But honestly, I would not trade those experiences for the world. Those times built character, perseverance and competency. I wouldn’t so proud of how far I’ve come if I’d never had anything large to overcome. Times when I feel most loved and connected with others are made infinitely more sweet because I know what it’s like to feel the exact opposite. Now that I am familiar with loneliness, it is that much easier to identify, accept and deal with.

If you are lonely right now, let me encourage you. It is not your fault, there is nothing wrong with you. Your only fault is being human. Everyone feels lonely at some point or another, whether they admit it or not. I don’t care if you’re married with children or the most popular kid in school, no one feels satisfied and fulfilled 100% of the time. If you are lonely, hang in there. Push through and recognize the positive sides of this emotion. There will come a time when your loneliness will depart as swiftly as it came.

P.s. Photo from here