An Essay on Loneliness

Lonesome Whistle

On my right knuckle is the shadow of a scar from brushing my hand against the wood stove when I was four. I remember the moment it happened; it doesn’t usually take much to learn to be careful around a wood stove. When something hurts, we pull away. And, because we live in a time when the tools available for killing the pain are powerful are ubiquitous, those same natural imperatives that can serve us so well in the wilderness send us running towards the myriad enticing escapes offered by the modern age.

As an infant in a crib, I would “lurch,” which was a strange rocking motion that I continued to employ, in some form, well into early adulthood, in an effort to deal with the pain of loneliness and boredom (I had a friend in high school who witnessed this behavior and thought I was suffering from demonic possession). As soon as I was able to manage a stereo system, I would play records or listen to the radio while I “lurched,” or just lay on the bed staring at the ceiling.

If I’d been allowed to watch as much TV as I wanted, I imagine I would have added this to the rotation. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I started smoking, drinking, and using other drugs; anything to get away from myself and be someone else, somewhere else, even if the price was a trebling, in the come down, of whatever pain I was avoiding. It’s the same old story you’ve heard a million times; I’m lucky that I didn’t make worse decisions or face worse consequences.

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As a child, I looked outside myself for the cure for the pain of loneliness. If I wasn’t actively engaged with someone else, I was figuring out how to get that connection, or how long to wait before seeking it again. I wasn’t neglected or ignored; my loneliness was a wound without a clear cause. In my desperation to staunch that bleeding, I attracted more of the same, ending up further isolated and outcast, until I was caught in a miserable feedback loop of desiring only that society which rejected me.

To be with myself, to be okay in a lonesome state, rather than frantically trying to ameliorate loneliness; this is what I was running from. From that broken place, the decisions I made even when I did find connection were always in the interest of clinging to those attachments. If I couldn’t escape the experience of being human, I could at least drown it out with noise or numb it out with analgesics.

When I got sick, and found myself wrenched from my babies and tethered to a hospital bed, roiling in pain, everyone who loved me wanted nothing more than to take the pain away. But I was blessed with a pain so massive and profound that it demanded my full presence and attention; every diversion I was offered felt exhausting and intrusive. What I needed was for the people who loved me to trust that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and had the tools to navigate the process.

I realized, we always walk alone. I may have companionship on parallel or intersecting paths, but there is only me in here. Trying to kill the pain of loneliness, rather than embracing the melancholy beauty of lonesomeness, is trying to kill my only true companion. Only I, myself, can  ever have a hope of seeing me, truly, as I am. Any effort I make to take my pain away, rather than move through it and receive what it is here to offer, is a demonstration of lack of trust in myself and the divine nature of my experience.

What’s more, the only way I can make true connections with anyone else is if I make them with myself. Until I do so, there are cracks in the foundations of all my relationships. In those moments of discomfort in the silence, can I face the person that I am with relentless honesty, and show that person to the world without expectation? It cannot be anyone else’s job to heal me; I may ask for grace, but it is not guaranteed. When I heal myself, then I find the companionship I seek. Then, I am giving from generosity and not insecurity, receiving with gratitude and not desperation.

The lonesome whistle calls me home, to myself, where I can finally be alone.

Can you hear it?

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