I am writing this post because it is long overdue, and because there are some things I must clear up with both those closest to me, and those who may be observing my life from a slightly greater distance.
Social media tends to magnify the pure highlights and make everyone’s life seem like one big party or a Condé Nast cover story. To many, it seems that my life these past years has been a breeze of travels, excitement and fun.
And this is true to an extent. However, the much greater, and more profound part of it has been filled with (self) discovery, challenges, and a dose of loneliness I believe few people in their lives experience, at least not at such an early age. I am not complaining at all – much of my ability to be so free and work and travel around the world comes precisely from the willingness to forfeit the comforts of home and security of the known.
However, after over eight years of spending most of my time alone, (I left my parent’s house when I was 14) I realize that one thing has reached a point where it has become unhealthier rather than not: Loneliness.
I distinctly remember once asking my mother, a clinical psychologist, why we need people. I was probably upset over a disagreement with a friend, and concluded we’d all be happier as hermits. My mother responded, somewhat dumbfounded, “We just need people. To live, to be happy. Human beings need other people”. While this answer did not provide my sociologically-minded brain the empirical evidence it much desired, my mother’s certain tone and professional training in all things concerning the human mind gave me no other choice but to believe her.
Now, years later, I know she is right. I know so from my own experience.
After four years in Philadelphia, I realized that many of my friends and I drifted apart, usually naturally, but at times, I resisted the drift. The loss of once-close friends is a byproduct of geographical distance, but it is painful nonetheless. Seeing relationships virtually disintegrate left me anxious about the stability of connections I once had so much faith in.
While in Rome, I met several people, but not really many people I felt on the same wavelength with. You know, the ability to be your complete self around people, no stress and anxiety involved in how you look, what you do, or say? That emotion is rare, especially for the shyer, more introverted kind. My social anxiety used to be so bad that I would rather buy a shirt the wrong size than speak to the salesperson. I know many find this unbelievable, but for some people, it is a struggle to even leave the house without feeling uncomfortable around strangers. This emotion is magnified when you don’t have the comfort of someone close to you to calm it. In Italy, I often felt very singled out, due to pretty frequent racist comments, mainly. I felt exposed and vulnerable as a single young female of color, and there was no one close to me to buffer those feelings and re-instill confidence. No one I could be myself around on a regular basis. And so, I started to doubt myself. I started to lose myself.
During longer stints alone, I would sometimes befriend people I know I would have avoided under more comfortable circumstances. Nobody really bad, by any means, but I definitely let certain people (especially men with less than gracious final intentions) take up too much of my time, just to have some company. Yes, even a coffee chat is “too much” if the person does not have your best interest at heart. Had I been around close friends, or my kill-you-with-one-glance mother, or kill-you-with-my-growing-bicep little brother, I know they would have not hesitated to tell me that certain people were not a good investment, time and energy-wise.
In Korea, it’s a different kind of loneliness. Koreans don’t do anything non-work-related by themselves. I’m not kidding – you will not find a (younger) Korean shopping, working at a café or even eating by themselves, unless they absolutely have to, for a pressed lunch perhaps. Otherwise, everyone is in couples or large groups of friends. Never have I felt like more of an oddity being by myself. So much that, when I have company, I feel my entire body untense.
The funny thing is, up until not too long ago, I brushed off my feelings of loneliness as moments of normal solitude. I almost got used to it, until I realized that this is not really normal – or healthy – in the long run.
My mother came to visit me for just a week, but for an entire week, I started my day by saying good morning to someone in real life. Someone wished me a good day at work. I looked forward to meeting a loved one every day, and sharing my meals with this special person. I could give someone a good night kiss and share laughs and talks about deep and trivial things alike, no matter what.
Once my mother left, it hit me: I don’t have anyone to talk to in real life. I go weeks without giving or receiving a hug, kiss, or deep, in-person talk. When I’m sick, no one can make me soup or tea. I have to drag myself to the pharmacy and gesticulate like an Italian on steroids (limited language problems) to get some medicine I have to trust kind of blindly. Most nights, I buy instant food from the kiosk. I don’t remember what it feels like to travel with someone who can watch my belongings while I go to the bathroom. I cram my bags into tiny stalls and, sweating buckets, attempt to do my business hoping I didn’t leave anything unattended in the taxi/waiting room/train. Most of my conversations happen over text/Whatsapp/Facebook messenger and, when time zones align miraculously, FaceTime or Skype. Ironically, I don’t like being in front of the computer or phone much, but if I’m off it, I would go days without any more human interaction than thanking the cashier for my change. I find myself staring at my own reflection wondering what exactly I’m doing so far away from the people I love for so long, but then I remember that the people I love are not even in the same place, so there is no way I could be near them all at any given point in time.
A few days ago, my family asked me if any of my students or local Korean friends had invited me to dinner at their house. I answered no. My mother (who last lived in Korea in the 1960s before its economic miracle that brought a capitalist culture of much success, progress and high education levels, but also intense competition that manifested in saddening superficiality i.e. excessive plastic surgery) was shocked. “That’s so weird!” she exclaimed. “Don’t they understand how hard it is to live in a room that just holds a bed for months, with no relatives around? We always invite people into our homes.” I answered in their defense, and in defense of everybody everywhere – most of the population – who does not live this ‘lonesome modern day cowboy/girl’ lifestyle. “Mama, they just don’t know what it’s like. It’s not their fault, they just can’t imagine it.” And it’s true – many people go straight from their parents’ home to living with a partner or spouse. The only hiatus in between may be a few years in college or the military, where many live with close friends or extended family, and there is arguably too little privacy to ever feel devoid of human interactions.
So here I am, on the plane from Seoul to Manila, on another trip I worked hard hours and long, lonely days to take myself on. However, I am meeting one of my best friends on the trip, and we are traveling together. The thought of having a close soul with me for ten days lifts me to another level of spiritual happiness. Just the thought of alleviating loneliness puts me in a natural high.
All things said, I love my adventurous lifestyle, and I feel I am learning about the world at lightning speed. At age 22, I have visited almost 40 countries, many of them by myself. But I also realize that I will one day be ready to turn from an ever-migrating bird into a tree with firmer roots. The lonely lifestyle has its exhilarating moments, but it is not healthy in the long run. Loneliness is a powerful inhibitor; it nags at your confidence and overall health. For example, I eat to distract myself from my loneliness, and the unnecessary weight gain resulting only leaves me upset with myself. Humans need human contact, in a close and warm way.
Much is uncertain, and I am a firm believer in not planning life too strictly so that you do not forgo the room for adventure, chance encounters and spontaneity. I feel that those who never truly lived alone may be missing out on much crucial growth and introspection, or at least the appreciation and value of human company. When I see couples in nice restaurants argue over little things for hours, I internally cannot help but feel sad. But then again, it may be that they cannot value the specialness of being close to someone, because they don’t know what it’s like to be totally alone. Often times, we need to experience something to understand it fully.
I know I will someday make my own roots. I will probably have more than one home of choice, for I have already made the world my home. I hope to have a place or two that I can always come back to. I love my friends in Spain, New York, and Tunisia. I love my family in Chile, Israel, and Los Angeles. I have more than one place I call home already. But I now know that one day I want to build a steady rhythm in a place or two, a rhythm that beats to the drum of community, trust, and belonging.
In the meantime, I encourage everyone to try to recognize lonesome people, old and young, and reach out a warm welcome into your heart (and maybe home) whenever you can. And to the solitary wanderers amongst us, enjoy the freedom and endless possibilities to your fullest. Leave every place with more joy and beauty than you found at first. Contribute to the communities that touch and welcome you, and spread your wealth of travel and discovery to those who care. It is the greatest wealth we can acquire on our own.