When we left the coffee shop, it had just started snowing. Small, steady flakes, the kind that sneak up on you, accumulating slowly over hours until what seemed like hardly anything has transformed the brown, barren earth into a fairyland of white. Hours of warm drinks and warm companionship replaced by the peaceful, silent solitude of a drive through snowfall, and my heart ached with the beauty of it.
I am a connoisseur of solitudes, and this has been a weekend full of them:
the empty, relentless solitude of Friday night, a dim, silent apartment when I’m longing for human contact
the strange, modern solitude of the gamer, being surrounded by voices from around the world and yet still alone in my room, staring at a computer screen
being alone in thought, content amidst a room full of friends, wearing their closeness like a blanket
the quiet rustling of snowflakes as they fall on dry leaves
the cozy, homey solitude of watching the snow fall from inside a warm home, music on a radio, soup simmering, the cat begging for just a little bit of chicken because he’s the starvingest kitty in the world don’t you know
Sometimes solitude is unbearable, as it was on Friday night. I’ve come to learn that loneliness is less a matter of proximity to people, and more a matter of my mental state. I can be surrounded by friends and still be lonely. Sometimes, it’s because I’m clinging to the idea that there’s a particular someone missing: an infatuation, a lover, a hero. Someone to validate and affirm me. Sometimes it’s because I’ve spent too long cocooned in my thoughts and have started to resent other people for not reading my mind.
One of my biggest fears is being alone. Not short periods of aloneness – that’s something I’m used to, and often savor. But being alone and unknown – that terrifies me. I could write a book about all the bad decisions I’ve made because of this fear, all the love I’ve chased, relationships I’ve pursued and then clung to, friends I’ve betrayed and confidences broken, the ways I’ve changed myself to fit in and be loved and be known by others, even if only by way of the mask I’ve worn.
But none of my own effort will completely fill the ache in me if I’m looking to fill it with other people. Joseph Conrad wrote, “We live as we dream – alone.” We can never fully touch the mind of another, and we will never fully be known. We have to find something else to fill our hearts, and I have learned that sometimes, when loneliness is an ache, the best thing is to turn to Scripture or prayer. Remembering that there is One who knows me more deeply than I know myself isn’t a substitute for a hug or a warm hand to hold mine, but it reminds me to stop feeling sorry for myself. The universe is infinitely larger than me and my mopey self-pity.
Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s this from Thoreau’s Walden, a quote that has stuck with me for years:
Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such, — This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.
Physical distance, temporal distance, they seem so insignificant when looked at in comparison to all of creation. Friends who are long gone, friends who have yet to come – put it into perspective. Is not our planet in the Milky Way? Do not we share the same Creator, the same moon, the same sun? Why should I ever feel alone?