Originally published in The Startup.
There’s no good word for the opposite of loneliness.
‘Companionship’ falls short because it implies the presence of other people, which is not a prerequisite for not feeling lonely. ‘Inclusion’ is likewise inadequate, as it denotes absorption into a group.
The opposite of loneliness is not the constant presence of other people. Nor is it a packed social calendar, evenings spent sprinting from one party to another, the jaded nonchalance of a Jay McInerney character.
It’s more the sense that there are people present who we can always reach out to and who will reach out to us — not just in a crisis, but when we need some intangible reassurance, when we want to run our decisions past another, when we need the validation that lets us turn the tiny spark of an idea into something real, when we simply need a reminder that we are alive.
If loneliness is a gap between our desired level of social contact and our actual level of social contact, non-loneliness is the alignment between the two.
It is the absence of absence.
Hell is other people.
Not because people are bad, but because relationships are inherently uncertain, and uncertainty is hell.
Loneliness can equate to a degree of certainty.
You can plan the week ahead down to the minute without last minute plans or the needs of others infringing. You don’t need to worry much about rejection or confrontation or negotiation or anything that pulls you out of your own head.
Dependency creates uncertainty.
You can argue that affection is possible without attachment (and that dependency is not inherently part of not being lonely.) But when you first start to move from one to the other, the initial tendency is to attach undue significance to every interaction. And then to crumble when the old uncertainty emerges.
Lonely people can grow to hate ambiguity.
Too much time in your own head can lead to black and white thinking. No shades of grey. Hot or cold. Yes or no. 100% or 0%. 100 miles an hour or standing still.
Relationships that can’t be dialled all the way up — the casual acquaintance, the sporadic water cooler conversational partner, the brief visitor — can feel empty, not worth fully committing to something superficial.
Everyone has a veneer they show upon meeting others. Eventually, it cracks, the question is always of how long.
If it cracks too fast and the self spills out, it all feels out of control, prompting the urge to withdraw altogether. It’s an act of self-sabotage: to lay out the worst, wait for others to recoil, then take that as validation. Worse, it’s selfish to use others to prop up the scenery in a private drama.
We are not suns to be orbited. But when we go too long without being part of a substantial web of connections, it’s easy to forget that.
A few nights ago, I took the dog (note: he is not my dog, he’s a housemate who doesn’t pay rent) out for a short walk and when I returned I had 21 new texts.
A few from people I work with, a few from people I’m seeing, a few from people I plan to meet when the monumental cosmic alliances necessary to position two Londoners in the same place at the same time occur, from my best friend, from old friends.
The number is arbitrary. Who’s to say if that’s normal or abnormal. Bear in mind half those people live in other countries, some I’ve never met, most I see once a month at best.
Still, the moment felt significant. It was the first time I noticed the 18 month stint of isolation following my decision to leave university was beginning to wane.
The way I feel about that is more complex than it should be.
Whatever the opposite of loneliness is, it takes time to form.
Just like loneliness takes time to creep into our lives — a gradual insidious process.
It’s not hard to push everyone away. Part by choice, part by accident.
You start by making yourself hard to contact. Delete your social media (yes, it’s possible to retain relationships without it, but only if you make the effort.) Change your phone number. Travel and swap locations a few times to throw the compassionate off your trail.
Move away to the wrong side of town where the main route to making friends with neighbours is picking up a drug addiction. Do not pick up a drug addiction.
Decide to let work supercede everything else because you’re an adult damnit, and you need to simultaneously get an education, develop your career, and make enough money to pay the rent on the shoe box flat where you live alone and feed the cat.
Wait, why are you living alone? Ah right, because housemates, however intolerable, would mean enforced social contact and lower rent which would give you less of an excuse to work all the time.
Why are you working remotely? Because there are no other options in that area.
Why are you living there? Fuck knows.
Spend a lot of time crying on the phone to your best friend and brother, but don’t make any effort to change things. Go to 12-step groups for people with relationship issues and listen intently, spend a lot of time pondering your own attachment style, again without action. You’re doing fine. Having fun would occupy too many of the 2 hours a day you’ve assigned for non-work, non-sleep activities. Anyway, you have a cat.
Feel guilty and greedy any time someone does spend time with you or offer an invitation because you know they probably know. Turn down most invitations until they dry up. It’s a short hop from introverted to rude in the eyes of others.
When I was in my early teens/ late childhood, I had a clear idea of where I expected to be by this point in life, by my second decade, based on a combination of American tv shows and the expectations of family.
I envisioned myself having already graduated with a master’s in English, moved to a big city (New York was the main contender, as the fact I’ve never been there makes it easy to maintain the fantasy), and into a glamorous apartment with Scandinavian furniture, houseplants on every surface, and exposed brick walls.
I’d have partnered up with some cute artsy type and she’d be so perfect that neither of us would need to hop back on the dating treadmill again. Oh, and we’d have a Shiba Inu puppy. Or two. Duh.
I’d have a vaguely journalism-ish job that involved a lot of travel and energetically taking notes and being super busy in a snazzy monochrome wardrobe, all within a contained daily time slot. I’d have also published a book already, and woken up pretty one morning because, again, duh.
Of course, once I became that type of person I’d also sprout a clan of amiable friends and we’d all constantly go to cocktail parties, art gallery openings, and other vaguely intentioned social occasions in dimly lit buildings.
Two decades of living seemed like plenty of time to figure it all out. In this magical world where rent doesn’t exist, dogs don’t destroy furniture, people have few negative/complex emotions, and there are 50 hours in the day, the question of loneliness seemed arbitrary.
These transformation mirages have one main flaw:
they assume that every fact of who we are is malleable, that we can simply shrug off our defining character traits — that things as integral as how we look, how introverted or extroverted we are, how we express our emotions, how we learn, our core skills, can be shifted at will. Even more so, that to do that would be desirable and beneficial.
That old adulthood fantasy came back to me one night as I sat eating cold fish fingers off a chopping board and watching water drip through the living room ceiling the flat where I lived alone with a wheezing cat.
You know something has gone wrong with your life when you find yourself hating Friday evenings and devising elaborate ways to make your work fill more time. I used to play Ruminations on repeat all night long, the moments when Conor Oberst’s voice cracks and the rasp of his harmonica feeling realer than anything else.
A few months later, I said no to renewing my lease, packed up the cat and one backpack of clothes and my laptop, then bought a one-way ticket to London.
Even as I came closer to that ludicrous fantasy of an impossible adulthood, parts of it began to fall apart.
For too long I’d envisioned that imaginary situation as the opposite of loneliness. In reality, the parts of my self I dreamed of erasing are features, not bugs. I will never be that person.
But I found the first traces of the feeling I sought in the months after moving, when it began to feel like I had a safety net. Like I couldn’t just take the SIM out my phone for a couple of weeks. Like I couldn’t just up and go somewhere or plan a project that would consume every waking moment for a month. The space to breathe is still there.
The absence of absence.
P.P.S. Before I get any angry emails accusing me of plagiarism, I was actually unaware of Marina Keegan’s essay when I wrote this. Maybe I’ll think of a different phrasing to rewrite this with, but for now I hope you’ll understand that sometimes people come at the same topic from alternative angles.