Here’s a memory. It was a warm August evening as I walked through the Old City district in Philadelphia. No one looked at me. No one knew me in this area, at this time. Most who walked passed me didn’t look up from their phones, texting or reading or posting, as they went by. At an intersection, there was a man sitting quietly on the curb. His head hung between his knees as his hands rested on the back of his neck. His clothes were filthy, tattered on the back near his shoulders. I stood next to him, off to his right. Looked down at him, and he happened to look up at me. Out of all the people in Philly at this time, walking by, he had been the first that I noticed who looked at me. He stood then approached me. Not knowing what to do, I remained where I was, watching him. When he was close enough, he told me that I was the first person to acknowledge him in hours. He didn’t ask for money, or for sympathy; he only wanted to thank me for seeing him. It was a strange exchange. The kind that sticks with you. Whether he was being honest about that fact or not, I can’t say; will never find out. But I’ve carried that moment with me, and as I sat down in The Gaslight to have a drink and some food, I couldn’t seem to get it off my mind.
Some time later at The Gaslight, the bartender asked me if I was waiting for someone else. I told her no, it was just me. I was alone. She gave me a look then walked away. I didn’t understand why she looked perturbed by the fact that I was there on my own. I tried not to think much about it, and turned back to reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
Eventually, I encountered a period of time where being alone felt intolerable and shameful. I had felt the feeling before, but never with such ferocity and weight as it had this time around. Loneliness had returned. Solitude has vanished. Most days, I couldn’t move, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think straight; writing had moved from an act of pleasure to drudgery. It was oppressive, dominating; a profound force. And how do we talk about such a thing? How do we translate that sensation of utter alienation and abandonment, even when inhabiting such close proximity to others? Loneliness is a stigma, just as much as it is an enigma. And it was during this time that I understood the significance of the man I had met months prior in Old City.
“Cities can be lonely places,” Olivia Laing writes in her book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, “and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired.”
I began reading through The Lonely City while struggling to understand my own loneliness. Seemingly, it came out of nowhere. One morning I woke up, and nothing felt as it had before; the sense of normalcy had detached itself from the reality known days prior. Yet, in previous days and months, I had been alone, eating lunch and reading at Artifact Coffee, had been to bars by myself, went on hikes. I couldn’t understand how we move in and out of loneliness and solitude, or how to lessen the intensity of loneliness. At that point, and months leading up to it, I had been spending many hours writing. By the necessity of my process, I have to sit in solitude to write, so the mornings and nights spent devoid of human interaction amounted. There was little intimacy between myself and others; everything between friends felt cold, forced, and distant. The loneliness felt as if it had no purpose; it only existed to cause pain and frustration. Somehow, what I felt became a point of shame. People who don’t experience such an occurrence will not understand it, and will not try to empathize with those suffering due to the amount of energy it demands. Life, for some, is the repetition of rebuilding ourselves, and to do so, we need plans and schematics; guidance is required for us to better navigate the unknown.
Olivia Laing, in her pursuit to rebuild from the crippling loneliness she experienced while living in New York City, turned to four different guides who all suffered similarly: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz. Each of these artists all suffered through loneliness, yet took what they felt to create art that allowed those who viewed it to feel less alone, to feel more connected. Later in her book, she moves into a commentary on the contemporary digital age and how it affects us, writing, “I can’t count how many pieces I’ve read about how alienated we’ve become, tethered to our devices, leery of real contact; how we are heading for a crisis of intimacy, as our ability to socialise withers and atrophies.” It’s a sad realization of the direction we’re heading in, and, from the consequence of our over-involvement with technology, we’ve tossed out our relationships, our connections, and intimate moments for it.
Here’s another memory. About three weeks ago, on a warm day in February. I was walking through Baltimore, and for once I wasn’t merely staring at the ground, but I was observing and taking in all that I could. It had been an occasion where I did not feel weighed down or burdened, and I wanted to make the most of it. Yet, there was something I noticed that discomforted and made me feel lonely, isolated. Each individual around me was staring down at their phones as they walked. I stopped in the middle of the walkway and looked around at the sight in awe. At that moment, there was the sense that I was dreaming, though I knew very well I wasn’t. A man ran into me and, without so much as acknowledging me, continued on.
Of course, there is a silver lining to this.
After finishing The Lonely City, I had something of a revelation, or an epiphany; what is required to combat loneliness—painful, isolating, crippling loneliness—is empathy, kindness, and trust in each other. Olivia Laing’s entire exploration of this stigmatized concept, by way of the maps and schematics her selected guides left behind, is to reveal that though we may perceive our realities at times as a hell, it is much more significant than that. She points attention to the fact that loneliness cannot be cured through the pursuit of others, but rather the acceptance of ourselves in all that we are: “I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily,” she writes. “I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.”
We must remember, always, to be open and to be honest; kindness is a force we will always have, and acknowledgement goes farther than we may give it credit. Through loneliness, we learn about who we are, about other people, and we are able to recognize that being alive is a gift. It’s a way of learning what to do with the unknown.
“Loneliness is collective; it is a city.” This sentiment repeats itself in my head. As I look around my house—some walls bare, while others accumulate the torn pages of books, words from those writers who’ve departed—I feel a sense of calm. Each day we face a new experience with loneliness, and there are no set rules on how to cope with that feeling, but to appreciate what we have and to take notice of each moment experienced is to begin to acknowledge what brings us joy and meaning; there’s much to learn in the face of loneliness. I think about the man in Old City from time to time. Together, we are alone, and we are not.
Grub Street Fiction Team Member
Image: Photographed by Coty Poynter
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.