As humans, we spend so much of our waking lives, trying to connect with people; we join clubs and Bible studies, set up times to meet for coffee and drinks, go to family gatherings, parties, weddings, concerts–so that we can share common experiences, tell people what we have been up to, and therefore validate our own existence. As I watched the last season of Mad Men, and Don Draper’s existential downfall, I couldn’t help but think about how lonely it is to be human.
I think, as humans, we are always missing each other. I’m hurt, and want to talk about my feelings, but you are having a great day, so you don’t want to detract from that. You want to stay up and chat, but I’m too tired. I’m going through a break up, you just found your Prince Charming. I’m considering going back to school, you want to plan a Vegas getaway. When we think about how complex our lives truly are, of course we would always be missing people; the chances that I end up in the same state, at the same time, desiring the same things as another human could be very rare, and thus, I’m left quite lonely, experiencing the world in my own time and place.
We miss each other with our inability to communicate effectively. God gave us language so that we could communicate with each other, but even language is not standardized. Because our experiences change the way we view the world, and because we all experience that world in very different ways, our interpretations of language also significantly alter. Like, I could say the word “love” to you, and the word “love” triggers fond memories of your high school sweetheart proposing to you on your parents’ front porch, but to me, that same word could trigger cheesy Oscar Wilde quotes (“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance). The word is the same, but our interpretations of that word are different, and therefore, we are lonely in our understandings of it, because no one could possibly ever understand it the same way that I do.
When we are in the most intimate relationships with people, we suffer loneliness. I could be married for 30 years. We wake up, share each other’s mornings, depart, and when I come home from work, I could try my very best to relay all the possible things I witnessed during that day, explain all the interactions I had with people, all the ideas I discovered, and yet, I still could never quite possibly perfectly describe those hours we spent apart–therefore leaving those hours I spent away, lonely, because I can never fully transmit exactly what I went through that day (and also because my sense of truth is clogged, stunted, opulent).
Even those times we are sitting right next to someone, and witness the same exact thing they do, we are lonely. Because, what is going through my head is certainly not the same thing that is going through your head. Just a few weeks ago, my brother and I sat at the beach, watching the sunset. We watched the same exact sunset. The same exact sounds reverberated around us. The same smells, the same humid air. And yet, my experience of the sunset induced images of the rays dancing off the water, while my brother focused on comparing the beach sunset to the mountain sunset. And in that moment, while we are sitting right next to each other, and we are conversing, we are still lonely, because my experience is not his experience. And, I can try my hardest to relay to him exactly what I am feeling, seeing, sensing, thinking in that particular moment, but language always has limitations that prevent me from accurately discerning, and from him understanding precisely.
I think the most painful form of loneliness is watching someone you care about suffer–from an illness, a disappointment, a break up, a death. Our bodies are own our unique vessels that we carry from place to place, from time to time, experience to experience, and while I can develop empathy for others, I can never suffer for them. I’ve had a few students lose significant people in their lives, and the most painful thing, as a teacher, and as someone who has been through it herself, is to know just how lonely–but necessary–the road ahead will be for them. When the news is first delivered, you watch their shock, and you just know how significantly altered their lives will now be. As time sets in, you watch them cope. Some people need time to process, and stare off into space. Some people need to keep busy, and stay diligently tied to their work. Others just stop showing up. And the most painful part is to just watch–you can try to say things to make it better, make a joke, offer them a piece of chocolate–but at the end of the day, the sufferer is still suffering in a very lonely state, because no amount of my own life experiences, my own probing questions, my own closeness can ever truly BE their experience.
“There is the solitude of suffering, when you go through darkness that is lonely, intense, and terrible. Words become powerless to express your pain; what others hear from your words is so distant and different from what you are actually suffering.” –John O’Donohue