I’ve been feeling lonely lately.
Not the gaping, “Oh-he-left-me-and -I-have-no-friends” kind of lonely. From time to time, we are all going to experience the acute sorts of disconnection that accompany deaths, broken relationships, and major changes in circumstances. One cannot be human and altogether avoid these feelings.
The kind of loneliness I’ve been experiencing of is far more elusive than this. With no apparent cause, and no predictable arrival, a vague, free-floating sense of disconnection has lately been coming to visit me . I have taken it upon myself to discover where this kind of loneliness comes form, and what, if anything, can be done about it.
Where is the Loneliness Coming from?
There is an obvious, and yet fundamentally unsatisfying, response to this question. Loneliness – even the vague, untraceable sort of loneliness of which I speak — is circumstantial. People are lonely if the environment they are in is conducive to isolation.
After spending two years at the University of Chicago, I’ve habituated to blaming my loneliness on my environment. A university whose not-so-official slogan is “Where fun comes to die,” may not, at face value, appear to be breeding grounds for social connection. When I was making the decision about where to attend college, I was very concerned about the University of Chicago’s reputation for depression and social isolation. I was afraid that my emotional self, which was not particularly stable at the end of my high school career, was likely to fall victim to the university’s inhospitable environment. Students there are lonely, I was told. And lonely was not something that I wanted to be.
I am now nearly half-way done with my University of Chicago education, and instead of studying for finals (as I should be), I am writing a blog about loneliness. Seems like my fears have been realized.
True, except for the fact that I am certain that my passing feelings of loneliness have very little to do with busy environment at the University of Chicago.
Students are busy, yes. But we are also made to believe that we are supposed to feel this way: if we are not over-worked, burned out, and in a constant scramble to finish assignments that we have been forced to neglect in lou of other, more pressing obligations, we have been made to believe that we are doing something wrong.
Even if we don’t have an assignment due tomorrow, and we really could spend several hours in the dining hall just chatting, we are probably not going to admit that, especially to a fellow student. We are probably going to conclude our conversations at the socially acceptable length of one hour, inform our companions that “we are very sorry that we have to leave, but we have work to do.” We are then going to go to the library, perhaps feeling like we should do the work that we had only just implied was so pressing, and then unproductively alternate between working and checking Facebook. We are then going to return to our dorms, where we will fall asleep periodically checking our phone in the hopes that we will receive a text message from a friend, all the while wondering why we feel alone.
I believe the University of Chicago’s reputation for depression and loneliness comes from the perception that the student body is over-burned, over-worked, and over-busy. While this may be true, it it is also the case of countless other people in society. And more importantly, I do not think University of Chicago students, or members of the over-burned, over-worked world in general, are lonely because we are busy. No, we busy because we are lonely.
Busy Because We Are Lonely?
Think about the last time you had time to kill. Maybe you arrived at a designated meeting place before your companion’s arrival, or you were stuck waiting in a long line. What did you do during that time? You pulled out your phone. You checked Facebook, email, and news updates. Don’t worry, so did I, because that is the socially acceptable thing to do. No one wants to be seen in public doing nothing. Who would go to a coffee shop, alone, and just look at the window? Who would sit on a park bench, alone, and just watch the world around them?
In an increasingly busy and disconnected world, we’ve become terrified of being unoccupied. If we are not interacting with another person, we need to be doing something. Anything, really, but particularly something that seems important, so that others will assume we are alone because we are working on something of high priority. Technology has provided us with a frighteningly effective solution to this problem. By yourself? Feeling bored? Don’t worry, just starting doing something on your phone. Everyone will assume you’re up to something important, and no one will bother you.
Giving ourselves more to do is a very effective cover for loneliness. It doesn’t matter if the obligations we have are real or perceived. Either way, a burgeoning schedule serves as a safeguard against interacting with our own thoughts and with other people. It is a buffer against someone who is apt to disrupt our lineup of obligations by asking how we are doing, and actually expecting an answer that we are unable or willing to give. It is a defense to ensure that no one—especially ourselves – has time to realize how insecure we are actually feeling.
Too Busy to Be Heard
I very minor incident took place this week that helped me articulate exactly why the notion of loneliness scares me so much. This morning, an acquaintance of mine who I will call Dave, was walking toward me in an empty hallway on campus. Dave and I made eye contact. As you know, I’ve been feeling lonely, so I wanted to greet Dave and perhaps have a short conversation. “Good morning, Dave,” I said. “Good to see you. How’ve you been?” To my surprise, Dave did not answer me. Rather, he averted his gaze and walked passed me without speaking at all. Intense feelings of embarrassment and self-consciousness welled up in me. Am I that unpleasant to talk to? Then I saw Dave was wearing his headphones. Oh, that’s OK. Dave just didn’t hear me. Dave probably had more important things to be doing.
In a world where obligations, and not people, have become our highest priority, I am afraid of not being heard. I am afraid that the pair of headphones Dave has put between me and him, or the overbooked schedules that so many of us hide behind, will overtime condition us not to “intrude” in each other’s lives, lest we be interrupting something important. I am afraid that when I really need to talk to someone, or someone really needs to talk to me, we will be met with nothing more than a preponderance of closed doors and unopened text messages.
What Can We Do About It?
If there is anyone like me afraid of not being heard, I have discovered a solution. Listen. Listen attentively, listen long, and listen to literally anyone who will talk to you. Because chances are, people do have time to talk, even if they can’t admit it to themselves or anyone else. And chances are that you, too, have time to listen.
I have learned many things at the University of Chicago, by far the most important being that life can become very, very dark when one “doesn’t have time” for people. No wonder the over-burdened and over-worked are feeling alone: we are all “fitting each other in” during the 45-minute windows we have between one obligation and the next.
I am the first to admit that I have often been guilty of this. There are countless times where I have not made people the priority. Living in an environment where this practice is something of an epidemic, however, has made me resolve to change my ways, and I am learning how to do this through the example of others. A dear friend of mine often proposes to hang out by simply stating, “I want to waste your time.” In a world where there is apparently no time to waste, I consider it an honor that she wants to waste that time with me. She cares about the seemingly unimportant, inconsequential details of one my life that cannot be expressed in a strictly regimented 45-minute lunch. By this friend, I am heard.
My challenge, then, to all of us, is to be the kind of person who listens. The kind of person who is willing to waste time, and waste it with anyone. Talk to the security guard on the corner. Learn the names of the staff who work cafeteria. Listen attentively to anyone who talks to you, and when you are able, don’t put a time limit on conversations. If we all had a little more time to listen, and if we were all a little more willing to waste each other’s time, I believe our fears of not being heard would greatly subside. And you never know – you may come to find that the very best place to hear your own voice is in the stories of others.