On Loneliness

“Turning the front door knob, it came to him that maybe he could sponge away the look of loneliness that he’d seen in Susan’s eyes – and John was now pretty sure it was loneliness he’d seen, despite the smiles and the confidences. If he’d learned one thing while he’d been away, it was that loneliness and the open discussion of loneliness is the most taboo subject in the world. Forget sex or politics or religion. Or even failure. Loneliness is what clears out a room.”

– Douglas Coupland, Miss Wyoming, 114

******

I saw her standing in the rain at the bus stop. I never took the bus. It was my pre-car days living in Abbotsford. My roommate always dropped me off at her place of work in the morning, which was about a 10 minute walk from mine. For some reason I decided to take the bus that morning.

I had a strong sense that I was supposed to talk to her, but I didn’t, because I didn’t know what to say. I thought walking up to her and making a comment about the weather would be lame.

But then she walked up to me, “Would you like to share my umbrella?” she asked with an accent. “Thank you!” I said. Moments later the bus pulled up and we took a seat on a bench beside each other.

I asked her where she was from. “Laos,” she responded.

“Wow! That’s so cool!”

“You know Laos?” she asked. I did. A week before I had interviewed a Khmu couple about the work they were doing in Laos and in a Laotian community in California.

I asked her what she was doing in Canada, and she said that she was part of an international volunteer exchange program. She had only been in the country for about two months. “How do you like it here?”

Tear sprung to her eyes immediately. “I’m very lonely,” she said.

I instantly felt compassion for her. I remembered the intense loneliness I felt in the months after moving to Germany. Culture shock, language barriers, the knowledge that you are so far away from home.

I gave her a side hug and listened to her talk about her family and life at home. “I don’t have any friends here,” she admitted sadly.

“We can be friends!” I suggested in an almost childlike manner. We exhanged phone numbers and email addresses and made plans to get together soon. She hopped off the bus at her stop and waved goodbye.

*****

What makes loneliness the “most taboo subject in the world”? Why is there so much shame attached to being lonely? Why is it so hard to admit to one another?

When I read the above quotation from Miss Wyoming I had to put down the book and think about the topic of loneliness for a while. I’m positive that everyone has felt lonely at some point. I know that I have, and I know that I fear loneliness as I prepare to enter a new culture in the coming weeks.

I haven’t really come to any conclusions about this topic. All I know is that there is a huge stigma that’s attached to loneliness, and I have to wonder if this stigma has been perpetuated by the fact that our culture is increasingly finding ways to create connections (Facebook, Twitter, Blogs), yet these connections inevitably remain superficial unless we choose to take them a step further.

We should feel connected, but we do not. Instead we are connected to our computers. Connected to virtual selves. Connected to those flat and one-sided versions that we create of one another.

Regardless, loneliness strikes those with and without internet connection. But if we all experience it, why is it so hard to talk about?

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2 thoughts on “On Loneliness

  1. An insightful and poignant post, Natalie. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, agrees with you in his article entitled Small Change, published on October 4/10 in The New Yorker. He argues that the relational ties formed using electronic social media are not strong enough to achieve change in society.

    As long as we’re content to be held captive by loneliness and weak-tie relationships, we can’t expect much to change. It takes courage and effort to break free. Thankfully, I think that’s all it takes.

    • Great thoughts Jon! I also have to wonder if the reason that my friend was so lonely here in Canada was because “community” within her culture looks much different than it does within ours…

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