Lonely Hearts Club

So, I accidentally got a Ukrainian boyfriend. This is the result of being polite in the on-line dating arena. It went like this. It started out messaging about the usual stuff – he lives in Austin, owns a business involved in industrial environmental clean-up, all well and good, chit chat, pleasant enough. He told me he was widowed four years ago and has a 16 year old son away at boarding school. Very sincerely, I offered my condolences. This is where things get tricky, for a couple of reasons. First, he and I have never met, never spoken, we don’t know one another – he may be lying, he may be speaking truth – I don’t know, but this narrative is suspended between us, and I’m naturally sympathetic, empathetic, and in the world of on-line dating, this can translate to ripe, vulnerable. My empathy has also created somewhat of a force field around him, I don’t want to hurt this stranger. This is how I got an accidental boyfriend. It was very shortly after this when he sent, “Do you think your parents will like me?” Wait. What? What just happened? Things escalated quickly. He wanted texts when I left work, when I got home, when I was going to bed, when I woke up. His intensity with his want for words on the screen to be something real and tangible was surreal and it made me wildly uncomfortable. I ended it. There is someone out in the cyber world who craves that kind of attention, who can manifest feelings from unspoken words typed into a machine, someone who will reciprocate his intensity, and I hope they find one another. For me, it has a hollowness of loneliness, and I’ve been thinking about that this week. There are people who are alone, and there are people who are bone crushingly lonely, I’ve encountered both in this domain, and there is an acute difference between the two, but what makes one alone, and another lonely?

I think the difference can be as simple as one other person – friend or lover – who sees you. Someone who really sees all you are, accepts you for both the good and bad we all possess inside of us, and says, “Me, too.” It’s that connection to another, that sublime knowledge that you are accepted and part of the tribe, either small or large, that soothes away loneliness even when alone. One person. One person can change your life, change your outlook, change your heart. Without that connection, without just that one person, a person can be untethered in the world, and that can breed isolation and loneliness. Honestly, I can’t decide if the internet has helped or harmed in alleviating those lonely. The best case scenario, two lonely people meet online, and then meet in person, hopefully finding their tribe that tether to another. Face to face. Human contact. What I’m afraid happens more often than not, is like what it was with the accidental boyfriend. Just typed words simulating a connection, a relationship born in technology, anonymous in humanness. I think this breeds more loneliness, more isolation. It feels like a Band-Aid on a slit artery.

I have my tribe. I am loved and I love. I am lucky that I have a handful of people who see me, who keep me sane, keep me tethered. I am grateful. I have sat with loneliness before. It’s an unsettled feeling, an unsatisfied longing, an urgent restlessness. This is a natural habitat for self-doubt and recklessness. I sat with loneliness for a while, and it brought its shadow, melancholy. I have disappointed people, I’ve been disappointed by some, I’ve lost friends, and been lost, I’ve felt shame, I’ve felt love slip away, I’ve felt the heaviness of a marriage dying, and I’ve watched someone I love suffer and leave this world. All of these things shake the foundation and bring feelings of being soul crushingly alone, lonely. Sometimes I would withdraw and isolate myself – lick my wounds, sometimes it was messier. Sometimes self-sabotage feels better than lonely. Each time I eventually I picked myself up and began rebuilding my life. I stopped feeling lonely, and the sliver of crazy that comes with it. It took getting back out in the world, meeting new people, face-to-face human interaction. It’s frightening to make yourself vulnerable and let new people into your life, into your messy thoughts, to share your idiosyncrasies, to show them your pain, but it’s less frightening to me than trying to simulate human connection while protected through a screen. Real is better.

Geography has made dating apps a necessity – I live in a small town. I feel grounded with my tribe, I don’t feel lonely, but I know I’m fortunate. There are many people out there who are lonely and are searching the internet for a connection to another person. Their time line and criteria are different than mine, that’s not a judgement, just an observation – and I empathize, I really do. A feeling of belonging is a basic human need and loneliness, I fear, is becoming an epidemic. The irony that I’m typing the stories of my life and sharing them with strangers on the internet does not escape me. I propose this: the next time a neighbor stops you, or the lady behind you in line at the grocery store starts chatting – take a minute. Have a conversation with them. They may be making that brave, bold move to connect with another person, to feel that sense of belonging and acceptance. There, but for the grace of God, go I. And you.

Go forth and conquer.