When I venture out in to the world by myself, as I am prone to do from time to time, people sometimes ask, “Don’t you get lonely?”
There are two answers to this question, both of which are true.
1. My Community Is Worldwide
The success of this writing project has caused me to redefine how I think about friendship. I used to take what I now realize is a highly conventional view of online relationships – I thought they were narrow or shallow by default.
I now believe exactly the opposite. On any given day I download at least 100 emails from friends old and new. I can sit in the Hong Kong airport lounge and connect with a wide network of cool people. I can log on to Twitter and see what’s happening with hundreds of people I care about.
If I want to, I can take the online friendships offline and meet up with people almost anywhere I go. Here in Thailand, where I’m writing these notes, I’ve met with six people in a few days. Even when I head out to real off-the-grid spots like Brunei or Bangladesh, there is almost always someone interested in meeting up.
At this point in my global adventures, I’m just as likely to have friends in Vienna as I do in Vancouver. The community, online or offline, is very real. I now stand corrected from my earlier views about relationships that form across streams of data.
2. Loneliness Is Part of the Job
The first answer is true – I know far more people than I ever did before, and they are conveniently scattered all over the world. I care about them and I know I am cared for in return. However, when I head out for two weeks on my own, often to remote places where I spend long periods of time alone, I do in fact get lonely – and that’s OK.
I learned a long time ago that if I didn’t become comfortable being alone for extended periods of time, independent travel would not be an enjoyable activity. Depending on where I am, there are times where I spend several days in a row not talking with anyone.
When I’m out in the world I sometimes walk around all day with a vague feeling of sadness. I can’t always pinpoint the problem, and after I run through the checklist (“Do I need to exercise? Should I eat something? Was four cups of coffee enough this morning?”), I realize I’m experiencing the onset of loneliness.
The goal at this point is to do one of two things: a) try to turn the situation into something productive, or b) accept things as they are.
Creativity vs. Acceptance
Either response is acceptable, and sometimes I may need a combination of the two. Here’s how each one plays out.
When it’s properly harnessed, loneliness can be good fodder for creativity. The creating of something meaningful (in my case, words) rarely comes naturally, but when you channel your energy into making it happen, loneliness fades into the background.
The times when we successfully harness loneliness into creativity are almost always highly rewarding. Last fall I stayed up all night in Colombo, Sri Lanka, writing the manuscript for the Working for Yourself guide. The next day I wandered around the town looking for a print shop or internet café that could print the next-to-last draft. I finally found one that charged $9 to print 60 pages. I couldn’t decide if that was incredibly cheap or outrageously expensive, but I gladly paid the money. At breakfast the following morning, I sat outside the Galle Face Hotel and edited the final draft while looking out at the ocean.
Having overcome the lure of procrastination and the fatigue of travel, I had a good feeling when I finished. I had been sad when I started working on the manuscript, but at the end the overall feeling was one of satisfaction. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it happens often enough that I know it’s worth trying for.
I can also choose to accept loneliness for what it is. Being lonely causes me to reflect on the many good things in my life. I can say to myself, “Here I am in [country] and I’m doing what I want. I feel good about how far I’ve come and I’m looking forward to the rest of the journey.”
I’m not a naturally observant person. I know that I miss out on a lot of things happening around me. Sometimes when I feel lonely, I can choose to embrace the loneliness and pay more attention to my surroundings. I start to notice things I’ve missed before. I sit on the park bench for half an hour without doing anything. I ride the subway as far it goes in any particular direction.
Later on, I’ll feel better – but for a time, I just have to take things as they are and appreciate where I am. Therefore, when loneliness arrives, sometimes the answer is, Let it be. I know the feeling will pass and I’ll be okay.
Loneliness is overrated, and I try not to worry too much about it. My thinking is, if I never experience it, I’m probably living a safe, comfortable life. If I do experience it from time to time, I can fight back by being productive or just let it come my way.
Either way, the night won’t last forever. Right?
Lonely Train Station Image by Grandhi