A little thinking on existential loneliness

I’ve been feeling a little bit bleak and blue lately, not just because I was sick for more than a week (and the cough still lingers), and not just from the recent introspective off-days (those have ultimately led to more productivity and inspiration). No, it’s been much more emotional than that. It sounds too petulant to even say, but I can paraphrase with the title of Mindy Kaling’s recent book: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? To put it baldly, I’ve been feeling lonely, and I’ve wondered if I really had as many friends as I thought. There, I said it — and it does sound childish and ungrateful and ridiculous, especially when I know I am surrounded with as much love as anyone could hope for. But to know something as an adult, and to convince the scared misunderstood child that lives deep within, are two different things!

Blue clouds

Detail from a larger piece I’m working on (15″ x 22″)

I know why I’ve been feeling this way. It’s because I’ve been disappointed a lot recently, in ways that are almost too trivial to name, but taken together they add up to a strong, pervasive bad feeling. I sent out some emails that went unanswered. Friends had to cancel on events I was very much looking forward to. Someone neglected to convey a piece of information that was important to me. Nothing major, nothing I haven’t done myself on other occasions — to perhaps the same people. But a lot of these kinds of things happened in quick succession and over several weeks, and it just made me feel left out. My main grievance in all these episodes wasn’t that the person had insulted me, but that they didn’t do what I would have done — which is hypocritical, because “what I would have done” is completely relative! We always think that our own oversights are just that, aberrations, while we assume that other people’s are habitual. In other words, oh but I had a good excuse! The thing was: I had expectations (“what I would have done”), and they were not met. Woe.

I started writing this out in today’s morning pages, and realized that every bad feeling I get from every disappointment traces right back to my childhood (as does, perhaps, everything): I’m afraid people don’t care about me, or perhaps worse, that they care less than I do. It’s so painful to meet someone and get all excited about them, and feel like they’re my special friend, and then experience the shock of realizing that I am not to them what they are to me. I feel like this has happened to me all my life, and it never really hurts any less.


Another detail from the same larger piece

However, as I thought about what I was writing (this is a benefit of doing things longhand: it forces a certain slow pace), I started to wonder if it wasn’t me — and by “me” I mean my circumstances and expectations. As far as circumstances, I have and have always seemed to have more time than most people. I have an unusually good memory for all kinds of details, large and small. I’ve been fortunate to be the oldest child in a very caring extended family, and that means I grew up knowing that people would drop everything (or sacrifice anything) on my behalf. Perhaps because of these circumstances, I’ve developed high expectations for the other people in my life. I expect people to make time for me, because I forget not everyone has the kind of time that I do. I expect people to remember things, because for me it’s easy. But above all, I’ve expected people to show the kind of devotion that my family does, not recognizing that (a) parents and older relatives aren’t a suitable model for friendship behavior, and (b) my family is weird in a lot of ways.

As I continued thinking about this, I realized that if it’s me — if I am the reason I’m so often disappointed and lonely — then paradoxically, that also means it’s not me; that is to say, it’s not because nobody cares about me, it isn’t because everyone is hanging out without me! And if that’s true — if there’s no conspiracy for everyone else to have a great time and lots of friends and leave me out — then it probably means I’m not the only one who goes through life feeling hurt about this. Which means, doesn’t it — you tell me! — that this is a more existential loneliness, something that everyone gets, because of the mismatch between everyone’s circumstances and expectations. We’re all unique, so we all have a different kind of loneliness, and maybe we all think ours is the only kind (hence: everyone is hanging out without me). But surely it’s not. And we must all bring so many other levels of alienation to this basic existential loneliness; I, for example, have my feelings of marginalization as an Asian American, as a dorky/nerdy person, as an overweight person… I suspect we all feel, at one time or another, like we’re the only one in the world who ________.

I wrote last summer after VONA that I was determined to let myself love and be hurt. But this existential-loneliness insight goes deeper/bigger than that. Perhaps hurting is bound up with existence, so that we’re always bound to feel sad sometimes, just because — hey! I am me and you are you. I read once that suffering is the distance between our expectations and reality. I forgot this could apply to my friendships too. In other words, it’s not that I have no friends or that they intended to make me feel bad; it’s that I (largely unconsciously) was holding them to expectations that no human could meet, myself included. In so doing, I shortchange us all. When all I can think is this person doesn’t care about me, I have a harder time seeing just how much love and affection they’re really demonstrating, and when I’m busy thinking fine, then I can get along without them too! I bottle up the love I truly feel.

Turns out the fan brush makes cool feathers!

Another detail from the same larger piece

Anyway, I hadn’t intended to begin the week with a long riff on loneliness, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’ve been sitting around crying and moping and feeling awful. It’s more like every few days, my usual joie de vivre would get this damper on it, and every now and then the blue feeling would get big enough to drag me into it for a few hours. You know. The 3 AM feeling.

Truth be told, I almost didn’t want to write about this, because it started out so self-pitiful and down (and it’s so ungrateful to all the wonderful people in my life). But I figured if I’m keeping a record of my creative life, then loneliness should certainly be a part of that. But mostly I decided to post this with the hope that it might ease someone else’s existential loneliness. We may all be alone, but we’re together in that, and that’s part of why I create: to bridge that separateness, to foster greater recognition of the universal threads in our individuality.