A man standing in a window
A man standing in a window

Dear Paul, Why are we so afraid to get close when loneliness is killing us?

Paul Kiernan

That is such an authentic and gut-wrenching statement. We, or a great swarth of society, are slowly dying in a dark pool of loneliness. We see them all the time. The old, the infirm, the shy, the socially struggling, living their day-to-day, walking their paths, doing their usual, yet something is missing.

Why are we so afraid to get close when loneliness is killing us?
Alone in this room

Dear Alone,

“... when loneliness is killing us.”

That is such an authentic and gut-wrenching statement. We, or a great swarth of society, are slowly dying in a dark pool of loneliness. We see them all the time. The old, the infirm, the shy, the socially struggling, living their day-to-day, walking their paths, doing their usual, yet something is missing. Sometimes, they are simply ghosts passing by restaurant windows. They have trained themselves not to look in, not to stop and look at the couples and clots at tables talking, laughing not being lonely. Little do they conceive that the ones at the tables laughing are also profoundly lonely. Little can they fathom that husband or wife, sitting at the kitchen table for the evening meal, married for eight years, children, house all the trappings of the happy, are the ones aching with a loneliness that they cannot understand.

It is a misconception to think being close to someone will dispel loneliness. Maybe that’s the fear. One thinks, if I had someone, anyone, I wouldn’t feel this ache, and then, they find someone. But, after some time, that someone is no one, sitting across tables, beside seats. That person, who they thought would save them and pull them out of darkness, only serves to make them feel more alone, more disconnected. What happens then? What happens when the one thing you believed would save you turns out to be a lie? What then? How do you risk, jump in, take the chance when you know it is ultimately fruitless? The fear of being close is more about the fear that being close will not work.

I was once in the middle of a New Year’s Eve party. I was not a stranger, I was known and welcome, and I was surrounded by good friends, close and some just passing friends. There was drink, music, and laughter; it was the perfect party for all intents and purposes. My hosts were well off, and they loved throwing this party; this was the first time in many, many years that I was in town and could attend. I had been looking forward to this party. Now, as an introvert, there were the usual nerves; however, I had over six months to be ready for this party, and I was ready. I recall telling myself; this is exactly what I need right now. This is going to be great. I took my precautions and stayed quietly at home for a few days before the party, so my batteries were fully charged, and off I went. I didn't have the usual panic at the size of the crowd. One of my hosts, who knows me well, took me to a side room off the kitchen and gave me a key to it, telling me that if I needed a break, this was my room to come to and recharge. I’m happy to say I didn’t even think of the room or retreating to it once in the evening. I was happy to be there, and it seemed, as I had been telling myself, this was just what I needed.

Several hours into the party, I stopped suddenly. In a crush of people moving to the bar or the floor to dance or the bathroom, I stopped. I moved to the side of the room, leaned against a wall, and felt it. Like putting on a familiar sweater, I felt it. In this mass of happiness, I was deeply, painfully, uncontrollably lonely. I did not feel connected to anyone. Even with my host’s most kind gesture of a room for me to recharge in, even though I had several requests from women to save a dance for them, even though I was a little drunk on good bourbon, even though all the trappings of happiness, acceptance, and society were trickling from my finger’s tips, I was lonely.

I am lonely.


“ … when loneliness is killing us.”

Is the answer to find someone, to get close to someone? What if you do that and loneliness still dwells in the shell of your being? Then you have to tell that close person, I feel lonely, and they say, but you have me. What then?

I don’t know. Perhaps being close isn’t the opposite of being lonely.

I have no answer to this question. I sure wish I did then; like a physician, I could heal myself. I think about it constantly. Go somewhere, I tell myself. Be with someone, I say. Try. And I do, and I have, and it’s not.

I have gone on rants about social media making us less social, more depressed, and more isolated. Perhaps, if I want to lie to myself, I can say that, right there, the Facebooking, the Tweeting, the texting, the comparing of our lives to see who is the happiest, garners the most likes, gets the most thumbs up to their posts and pictures, that’s why we’re lonely but, I don’t think so. I mean, is finding someone to be close to a better answer than posting on Facebook and collecting “friends”? I have no idea.

What I see is this; loneliness can be pushed aside. Lonely can be your daily baseline, and then someone comes in and sits, chats, drinks coffee, tells stories, and it seems that loneliness is gone. But it’s not; it’s simply in another room or out for a walk to get the paper and a pack of Camels. When the visitor leaves, loneliness returns. It’s the law of conservation of matter; you cannot destroy matter, and you cannot destroy loneliness.

I have found that if I confront it, name it, and allow it to have a coffee cup in the cupboard, a chair in my kitchen if I don’t fight it, I can deal with it, and it doesn’t crush me. If, when the feelings arise and attack, I simply take a breath and say, out loud, to no one but me, but out loud still, “I am lonely,” then I feel better.

I am lonely but alive. I am lonely and not using another person to try to make this go away. I am lonely, but I am strong. I am lonely, but I am cooking a fine dinner. I am lonely, but I am going to see a movie, a play, a dance concert. I am lonely, but I can help a friend deal with loss. I am lonely …

The fact is, as Thornton Wilder said in his brilliant play “Our Town,” … “those of us who are not busy being born are busy dying.” We are all dying. Being human is killing us. Time is killing us. Cancer is killing us. Loneliness can sometimes make death seem more appealing, and that’s just not true.

So, I have no answer to this question, but I do have words of hope. I know lonely. I know it better than I know the earth under my feet. I know this about it: it is not a reason to give up, it is not a reason to stop living, it is not a reason to stop seeing the good around you, the good you can do for others, and the moments of joy, goodness, happiness that come your way. Loneliness is not an end. I know it is a struggle, and it hurts and pushes all the air out of your chest and makes you wish to let mother earth swallow you … but don’t.

I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer. When I started writing this, I truly believed I would have one, but I have to be truthful, and this is what it gets me. Please, if you’re lonely, don’t give up. Find those moments in the day when you can have some connection and, while lonely take a walk for Chinese food; fill that time when he’s gone with as much good as you can, use it like armor, use it as an apple box to stand on and look over the walls of lonely from time to time. But please, don't give up, don’t let it win, and don’t let it rob you of the good things that come your way despite being lonely.

Because despite being lonely, you matter.

I hope that helps.