I’ve been trying to outrun loneliness for as long as I can remember.
One summer afternoon when I was seven or eight, I called my parents crying. My grandparents had been busy with their middle-age lives. I’d fed their horse apples and fished in a nearby pond until I couldn’t take it anymore. The loneliness vanished as my dad and little sister pulled into the driveway.
In middle school, I’d play video games with my best friend Matt. We’d stay up as late as we could. Because sleep meant disconnection — and loneliness.
Then I found songs. Lonely, nighttime songs. The Early November’s “Sunday Drive.” Ryan Adams’s “September.” Dylan’s “You’re a Big Girl Now.” I’d drive Southern Maryland backroads writing my own in my head.
If my band had a show coming up, I was okay. There was something to look forward too. To strive for. Something that all the work and practice and boredom in between was serving.
Along the way I hurt people. I expected them to make me feel less lonely. When they inevitably didn’t, I was pushy and needy and sometimes angry.
Now, it’s Friday nights. No plans and I’m a wreck. I text friends for some sort of connection. I scroll social media, assuming the relative quiet means everyone else is up to something special. I mostly just feel like shit. I pour some tequila or smoke a joint.
Plain-old plans aren’t even enough. My perfect Friday night is a dinner party with close friends, fix or six tops. Good food. Meaningful conversation. Deep connection. I need to be seen and heard. And I need to see and hear. (The pandemic has made this almost impossible, of course.)
Saturday morning comes and I’m back to my routines. Operating under the assumption that some future moment will finally be “it.” Saturday morning isn’t “it.” Monday mornings or Thursday evenings aren’t either. They’re preparation for whenever “it” happens; whatever “it” is.
By Friday night, I’m exhausted. Suddenly, this is it. This, right here, right now, is my life. So it has to be deep and meaningful. If it’s not, then I’ll be lonely forever. My mind sneers: you’re going to be 75 years old and still alone, watching football in a house somewhere in a gray, nameless suburb.
But I’m starting to glimpse another way. Another way of relating to that scared, lonely kid still inside of me. Because he is part of me. And never going away.
As the poet Nayyirah Waheed writes:
there is you and you.
this is a relationship.
this is the most important relationship.
What helps is imagining that kid beside me. Wrapping my arm around him and listening to what he has to say.
“For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety,” writes psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. “Being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.”
That’s why deep, meaningful connection is so soothing to me on a Friday night. It’s a pacifier for that scared, lonely kid.
I’m learning how to give that to myself. To self-soothe. Imagining my arm around that kid calms me down. Picking up the guitar softens my shoulders. Taking a hot shower makes me feel held by something larger than myself.
And thank God for my meditation practice. It’s helped me get to know my inner world. All my different parts. The loneliness. The striving to be perfect. The self-righteous anger. The people pleasing.
Mindfulness takes a little bit of the charge out of the thoughts. Creates some distance between them and me. Makes them less believable.
Like getting up from the front row of a movie theater and walking to the back. You realize the thoughts are just images on a screen. As Nepalese Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche says, they’re “real but not true.”
My worries about being lonely forever are real — they’re appearing in my mind. But they aren’t necessarily true.
Which allows me to choose how to relate to my loneliness. Rather than following those same old patterns that haven’t served me since I was a little, lonely, scared kid.
I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. My weekly email newsletter helps you bring mindfulness to work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe here.