The plight of the lonely: “Happiness only real when shared”
“Tonight, most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day, and tonight they’ll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places and one of those lights, slightly brighter than rest, will by my wingtip passing over.” (‘Up in the Air’)
This year, I turned a quarter of a century old.
I have to say, I’m slightly underwhelmed by my life right now.
Everyone loves to talk about living each day as if it was your last. It’s one of their favorite questions: what would you do if you knew you only had [a year, six months, three months, one week, one day, etc] left to live?
During the last month that I lived in Southern California, I got to experience that phenomenon. From the moment I decided, once and for all, that I was going through with quitting my job and moving home, everything became remarkably clear-cut and focused for me. I knew exactly how – and with whom – I wanted to spend my last few weeks. The inevitable end date of my time in Southern California gave me that sense of “now or never.” I started making the choices that I wanted to make. And those three weeks that followed, until the moment I got in my car and pulled out of the parking lot for the final time – those were some of the best weeks of my life.
What made those last three weeks in L.A. so golden was not so much the content of the weeks but the fact that I was sharing that time with someone very special to me. What made that time unique was the shared aspect of it – the intentional focusing of myself into extracting as much “quality time” from those last few weeks as I could; making the most of every last moment, whether it was being a carpool buddy, browsing around Barnes & Noble, or discussing our respective reactions to “Good Will Hunting” or “Shawshank Redemption.”
Every now and then, I’m reminded of those last three weeks in L.A. and all of the memories crammed into them.
When I try to explain it to other people, the reaction is usually something like, “I don’t understand what’s so special about all of that,” and then I know that I’ve failed to communicate the significance of that time to them. If I had explained it better, they would understand that it wasn’t about the things we were doing.
It was about belonging.
It was about the assurance of being known, the sense of not being alone in the world, the consistency of knowing that someone else was there for me during those last few weeks.
It was about happiness. Sometimes people like to remind me that life isn’t just about being happy. But the thing is, when you’ve spent the greater part of your life dealing with depression and a brain that doesn’t let you process feelings of happiness, those times when you find yourself actually feeling happy for an extended period of time often seem like the most important times ever.
Sometimes people tell me that I wasn’t truly happy, or that I was happy for the wrong reasons. I have a hard time accepting that, though, because that’s like someone telling me that they have more insight and understanding into what’s happening inside of me than I do. It’s like someone telling me that my emotions aren’t real or valid. I don’t think that’s fair for other people to tell me whether or not I was happy, or whether or not the reasons for my happiness were valid.
Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with my life on the assumption that I’m going to be single, at least for now. There are people in my life who insist that God has someone special for me. People who tell me that I just haven’t met the right person yet, and when I do, I’ll wonder how I could have ever thought I was happy in any of my previous relationships. They are confident that all I need to do is meet that person who will change my view on everything that came before.
It’s a nice thought (?) and I appreciate where they’re coming from. I know that they say these things because they care about me and they want to encourage me. But the funny thing is, it’s usually my married friends that are insisting on a good relationship in my future. Like I said, it’s a nice thought. But sometimes I want to remind them that, while that may have been the case for them, it won’t necessarily be the case for me. They cannot guarantee that I will end up happily married.
People talk about “blooming where you’re planted.” That expression sets my teeth on edge because it always seems to come up in some holier-than-thou context by some cheerful person who is already happy with their life. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that I’m trying to “bloom where I’m planted.” In that case, right now, I’ve been planted in a big ol’ pot of single-hood and I’m trying to figure out how to make the most of that.
(Me as a single person. A cactus seemed somehow appropriate.)
There is so much pressure on single people to be happy with their singleness: “Don’t worry – you just haven’t met the right person yet.” “Love comes when you’re not looking for it.” “If you are happy with your life, you will attract someone.” “When you’re not trying – that’s when people will notice you.” “You need to be able to meet your needs on your own, without depending on someone else for your happiness.” “Your happiness (or satisfaction or fulfillment or identity or whatever) must come from within.” “Before you find a relationship, you need to be in a healthy, satisfied place first.” “You can’t have a successful relationship unless you’re already emotionally healthy.”
I mean, damn.
That’s a lot of conflicting pressure! And the end result is that I find myself trying so hard not to try, and trying so hard to be happy and content with where I am right now, and then feeling guilty because the honest truth is that I’m lonely, I don’t like being single, and – at least for me – emotional health is going to be a life-long
The issue that I’m running into is similar to what Christopher McCandless discovered, as portrayed in his movie biography, “Into the Wild,” namely — “happiness only real when shared.”
Sure, I can find fulfillment and satisfaction in my life as a single person. I successfully took the GRE. I’m successfully shouldering a work load that used to be split into four full-time jobs. I’m successfully directing a choir. I’m successfully giving voice lessons. I decorated my cubicle for Halloween and it looks super cute. I’ve been redecorating the Spare Oom and I’m really pleased with how it’s turning out. I’m paying off my car and saving money so that, hopefully, I can someday make a down-payment on my own place to live. I’m wait-listed for a grad program. I’m pursuing a Social Justice Professional Development Certificate that my workplace just started offering this year.
I can appreciate my accomplishments.
But when you’re single, it’s different.
As a single person, I work hard to stay connected with my loved ones, to find and maintain community, to find that sense of joy and fulfillment that comes from being with other people. I don’t automatically have someone who has my back. Instead, there are many people who tell me that they have my back, on most of whom I would never feel comfortable imposing. I live with my family now, but that won’t always be the case. Eventually, there will be no mundane, precious routine of coming home to someone else at the end of the day. Yes, I have family, friends, co-workers, community, etc. But there is not that fundamental sense of “togetherness” that you can share with one other person – the togetherness that gives you the freedom to be tired or lazy and just lie around without worrying about what the other person thinks of you or whether you’re too boring for them. The togetherness that enables you to ask them for help or support or even just their company running a stupid errand simply because they are Your Person. The togetherness that gives you the freedom to enjoy even the most trivial things, because you are enjoying them together. Even, dare I say, the togetherness that gives you the freedom to take them a little bit for granted – not in a bad way, but just in a confident, reassuring “I-know-you’ll-always-be-there-for-me” way.
When I’m single, it feels like I have to work a lot harder to get satisfaction and happiness out of my life. And that’s not to say that people who are married or in committed long-term relationships have it So Easy and waltz through a magical life of sunshine. When I talk about how I don’t like being single, my non-single friends do not hesitate to point out all of the difficulties that come with sharing your life with another person. I’m not writing this to provoke or invite those kinds of reactions. I will be the first to agree with you – you’re absolutely right: I don’t get it. I have absolutely no frame of reference for the difficulties of married life. Thanks for the reminder.
What I’m trying to say really boils down to the idea of belonging and shared experiences. Whether you are single, married, or in a serious relationship, you experience both joys and challenges in life. But when you’re single, it’s like you have to work harder to make the most of the joys and to overcome the challenges, simply because you have to do it on your own. Maybe part of enjoying the good things and facing the bad things as a single person means learning how to reach out to family and friends for support. But the fact of the matter still remains: you have to make that effort, and if you don’t, there is no one there to share your happiness with you. And when you have to put forth that effort just to make sure that other people are aware of the good things and hardships in your life, that can already start to diminish the good things and make the hard things seem a little extra hard. You are your own advocate – and when you’re already struggling with loneliness, the pressure to not be lonely can be overwhelming, and happiness can seem inseparably tied with togetherness.
I can make the most of my life as a single person, do All The Things that I supposedly won’t be able to do once I “settle down and have a family.” But for all of my life, the recurring pattern has been that my satisfaction and happiness with my life is determined less by what I’m doing and much more by the people with whom I’m spending my time. I’d rather be at home watching a movie with a loved one than traveling the world all by myself.
After all, it was the man going through life alone who summarized his isolation in looking down at the rest of the happy world from an airplane. And it was the man dying alone who wrote in his journal: “happiness only real when shared.”