When loneliness isn’t loneliness, or not exactly


I’ve always been lonely. My first memories of feelings are of being lonely. And this loneliness has never left me. It is my everyday companion, closer to me than any person has ever been.

I remember crying, as a very young child, several weeks after my guinea pig died not because he had died, but because we all must die, and all must be alone in death, and I was unable to comfort my pet in his current loneliness as I had failed to comfort him in life. And no one could comfort me. I went and found my parents, and though they tried, I knew they could not fix what I understood as the essential condition of existence: time passes, winds blow, darkness comes and then light and darkness again, and perhaps nothing really matters.

Existential depression, I’ve heard it called. It’s common in highly sensitive, thoughtful, creative children.

As an adult I understand that meaning will be found where I seek it, that I create my own meaning and that this has to be enough for me, because I will never suddenly be enlightened as to the “real” meaning of things. I accept this condition of existence.

My loneliness is not the same as that felt by people who need the constant presence of others in their lives, and miss others when they are not around. I understand this loneliness, and sometimes feel it – even an introvert needs friends! But this kind of loneliness does not define my life.

My loneliness is also not the same thing as depression, although it is probably linked to it. But I had this loneliness long before I had depression (of a debilitating nature), and while I seek to manage my depression, I am friends with my loneliness.

Sometimes, in its less virulent form, it feels somewhat like melancholy of a bittersweet variety. It is tinged with nostalgia both for past times in my own life and for things I have never personally experienced. C. S. Lewis’s concept of sehnsucht defines it nicely: it’s a yearning for something that cannot be defined or attained. I believe it is the feeling that comes when one deeply grasps the impermanence of things, and yet at the same time does not want to still the fleeting nature of time. It is the feeling one has when it becomes clear that beauty and perfection are contained only in single, ephemeral moments, are only reflections in a drop of water before it falls away.

My loneliness, then, is the knowledge of the unattainability of sustained happiness, love, security, or any other state of goodness humankind desires. Such sustained goodness seems always to exist in another time and another place. In the past. In the future. In a different city or even on a different continent.

And I imagine it existing in other people. Because I know that not everyone lives with this kind of loneliness.

I’m grateful for it, though, because I believe it gives me the ability to experience and feel life deeply. Sure, that means I must deal with some very difficult emotions. But there are those moments, especially when I am out in nature, when I’ll see the way the pieces of sunlight lie across the ground or rocks, or the wind will make the trees speak, and I feel a painful joy that is bigger than those moments and just as wild. And I share something with the universe then that is ineffable but real, and I seem to exist beyond myself in a place that is boundless.

I am in Rumi’s field “beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,” where one lies in the grass and comprehends that “the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”

Photograph taken in Keystone, Colorado.


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