Today I’ve been reflecting on loneliness. I have been reflecting on loneliness for a while now, but I hadn’t put it into words, or even made sense of it in my own head because how I felt and how I thought I should feel were contradictory to each other.
The reason I chose to reflect on this today was because I listened to an online lecture on Phenomenology (for my postgraduate study) which is a philosophy but also a research methodology which focuses on revealing the meaning of the lived experiences of people. The study that was used as an example was one that examined people’s experiences of loneliness, and shared the stories of their varying experiences of loneliness. It was a powerful study that made me question what loneliness was to me, and if it was the same as how someone else may view it. If I have experienced loneliness, and you have too, does that mean that we have experienced the same thing? Or have our experiences been completely different?
In this particular study one man described loneliness as being alone in his apartment after his divorce, and when the loneliness got too much he would go to the local mall, just to be around people. For him, being around people distracted him from the loneliness he felt. If he wasn’t alone, he wasn’t lonely. Whereas another woman relays a story of declining an invitation to a party with her room mate after moving to a new city as she knew being at a party full of strangers would heighten her sense of being alone and she therefore would chose to be physically alone in her own company to avoid feeling lonely around people.
The story that touched me the most in the study was the story of a man taking his wife and children to a lake where he used to holiday as a child. He was so excited to share this experience with them, as this lake was one of his fondest memories of his childhood. As he took them out in the boat and shared his stories, pointing out land marks along the way, he realised that they were bored and disinterested. This lake would never mean to them what it meant to him, and through this experience, he lost his meaning of this lake. Coming back to this place that once brought him so much joy, now filled him not only with loneliness, but with the overwhelming revelation that no one in this world could experience this lake they way that he did. No one could experience the world the way that he did, and thus no one would ever really know him – his thoughts, feelings and experiences. He could share them, but no one would really feel those things, or understand things from his point of view. This was his account of loneliness – the knowing that he walks this life alone and that no one would ever really understand him.
The author of this study concluded that loneliness was a normal state of human existence, he stated that while we all have periods of loneliness, we are all together in that loneliness. However, we all experience our loneliness differently, and therefore there is no fix to loneliness. Some people may feel lonely when they are physically alone while others may feel alone in a group of people. The way we feel loneliness can change from one situation to another, and so while we are together in our loneliness, we are also alone in our loneliness as we all experience it in our own unique way.
I have been reflecting on my own experiences of loneliness, because this is what people have been asking me about a lot lately. My family and friends in New Zealand all want to know if I feel lonely. I have moved to a new town in a new country where I know no one, I am living by myself, and traveling by myself on my days off, and apart from the people I work with, I know no one. I am physically alone in my new life, but am I lonely? The answer is I don’t know.
I’m not lonely because I communicate with my family and friends daily on Facebook and Whatsapp, I never go a day without chatting to someone back home and because I didn’t live in the same town as my family when I was in New Zealand, this doesn’t feel too different to me. I’m not lonely because I like my own company and I am kept very busy with full time work, finishing my postgraduate diploma, planning my five month trip through central and south america, trying to see some of Australia on my days off and attempting to teach myself spanish via ebook (If anyone could direct me to an online course that would help immensely – the ebook thing isn’t engaging me).
But me being me, the chronic overthinker, I think… would I be lonely if I didn’t have all these things to keep me busy? And is loneliness just misplaced boredom sometimes? (Sidenote: I remember my parents saying they wish they had time to be bored when I would complain about boredom as a child. I hear you loud and clear, and I am definitely using that line on my kids)
Am I actually lonely but I’m just too busy to notice or acknowledge my own feelings? Or is this an information bias that has been instilled through the repetitive asking if I’m lonely?
Loneliness is something I worry about, especially setting out to do big trips like the central and south America tour that I have coming up, entirely on my own. I know a lot of solo travelers will face these thoughts as well, because travel brings a lot of feelings, doubts and insecurities to the surface that we all must work though. And traveling alone, well, there’s no one else to talk to to quiet that inner voice and therefore one less avoidance tactic that can be utilised to avoid exploring these.
I often ‘people watch’ and think how beautifully vulnerable the human race is, going about their daily business, together in our aloneness and alone in our togetherness. I wonder if they feel exhilirated, or depressed, or lonely, or relieved to be alone. Or observing a group of people, how they interact, do they feel alone in this group or do they feel a sense of togetherness?
I am choosing to do tour group style travel, as being a solo traveler, it makes the planning so much easier. Also, the added advantage of this is I will have a whole group of people to travel with as well. But does this mean that I wont be lonely? As the loneliness study highlighted, people can feel lonely even in a group. But then again, as the man who took his family to the lake found out, we can feel lonely even with the people we love the most in this world.
As the lecture went on, the lecturer discussed Van Manen and his work around researching the lived experience. It was at this point that she said something that really resonated with me. She said, “We’re always there in the presence of people, even when they’re not there. Other people are always a part of our experience”.
Now when she said this, it was meant in the context of a man sitting alone on a park bench and how the other people in the park are a part of his lived experience, and those who came to the park before him could impact on his lived experience even though they are not there now. But, as Phenomenology acknowledges and encourages, this is open to interpretation.
When she said these words, I thought of my Poppa, who died on the 8th of October, 2016, suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 65. When I reflect on my experience of loneliness, this is the thought that comes to mind. I remember standing at his funeral, watching people arrive and feeling like I was watching it on a TV. I felt disconnected from everyone there, numb, and alone. At the same time, I felt very in my body because I was feeling discomfort, and an extreme anxiety – I didn’t want to be there and I felt angry that people were looking at me. I felt that nobody knew how I was feeling, and at the same time, that everybody should know how I was feeling, like I would always look different from this day on, permanently changed and a little less sparkly. Broken, ruined, and never the same.
However, the lecturers words, “We’re always there in the presence of other people even when they’re not there, other people are always a part of our experience” made me feel a little less alone. Part of the reason I don’t feel alone right now, living in a foreign country, is because I carry the ones I love with me. As I said, I communicate with my family and friends daily, I also carry photos of them with me and put them in my house to remind me that I’m not alone and I have no reason to feel lonely.
And while this blog post has gone in a completely different direction than I initially envisioned, I come back to the original question.
Am I lonely?
No, right now I’m not but sometimes I am. I don’t think we are either lonely or not lonely, I think we flow in and out of loneliness day to day. Loneliness is like the tide lapping at the sand, it sometimes travels up the beach and wets our feet, but other times we walk along the sand, our feet remaining dry. But we can still see the ocean, just like we can remember the feeling of loneliness. As the author suggested, I believe it is just another human experience, like happiness. Once you’re happy, it doesn’t mean you’re happy forever, you’re happy right now and it may pass just as quickly as it arrived, and thus the same applies to loneliness.
So yes, traveling solo may bring loneliness, but traveling with people could bring loneliness too.. and like the ebbs and flows of live, I can only hope that it will leave just as quickly as it arrives.