Reset
X

World’s Best Mailing List

You'll receive a welcome message and updates twice a week.

Mailing List

Loneliness

Loneliness

loneliness

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.

Creativity

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.

Acceptance

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.

Wrap-Up

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?

###

Stumble-this

Did you enjoy this article? Please pass it on to others at StumbleUpon, or share your own thoughts in the comments section.

Lonely Train Station Image by Grandhi

29 Comments

  • Ann Victor says:

    Another great article.

    I, too, enjoy my own company, although I also enjoy people when I’m with them. But I don’t call it loneliness. I prefer to call it “aloneness”, that is, the capacity to be alone and to surrender to what the silence brings.

  • Jessica says:

    The park bench comment reminds me of a day trip I took to Ottawa last year on the cusp of Spring. The sun was shinning and there were cats on Parliament ( they have a home there ). I literally spent 45 minute, listening to LoA podcasts, basking in the sunshine, petting the cat. My originally intent was to go to some museum, but I had a better time basking.

  • Bill Riddell says:

    Great post Chris, you raise some interesting points.

    I think we should all spend some time alone. I believe its important to help forge your own identity and become in tune with what you want from life. Otherwise you can be tempted to follow in the slipstream of those around you.

    Balance in all areas of life is vital and alone time is a part of that. If you cannot be happy on your own how can you expect others to the help. It also fosters an appreciation for the relationships you return to.

    I have the same experience in regards to productivity. In my previous existence as a staff journalist I would get the bulk of my work done the night before deadline at home rather than in the crowded office. In the peace and comfort at home I churned out words yet often struggled in the noisy and crowded office.
    Loneliness and travel spark my creativity like nothing else. This past month I’ve completed some domestic travel in my homeland of Australia (to Sydney and the Great Ocean Road) and my quality and quantity of writing has jumped dramatically.

  • Todd Borst says:

    I imagine that someone that travels as much as you do must have a certain level of emotional self-sufficiency. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

    I’ve just began my traveling life style. When loneliness hits, I do sometimes simply take it as a reminder to, well, try meet more people. At the risk of appearing crazy, I do try to strike up conversation with strangers. Obviously it doesn’t always work, but the times that it did made the risks all the worth while.

  • Audrey says:

    I’ve got a bit of the opposite issue – not very much alone time :)

    Since I’m traveling with my husband, the question we always get is: “How is it that you’re still married after spending 24 hours together for the last 2 years?” (On top of that we’re also business and writing partners and it does become a minor miracle that we’re still talking)

    Although we travel extremely well together and love having common experiences (that we sometimes interpret differently), there is something special about exploring a place on your own – maybe people will feel more comfortable approaching you (mixed blessing sometimes), maybe you’ll have more time to write and reflect, or maybe you’ll just appreciate the time you have with friends (old and new) and family more. I like the idea of using loneliness to spur creativity.

  • Reid says:

    Great post Chris. It reminded me of a passage from Ernest K. Gann’s book “Fate is the Hunter” (about the life of pilots in the early days of aviation) that I had the pleasure of reading while backpacking solo through Europe for several months. Here’s the quote, pardon the length:

    “Ho! I was suddenly very lonely. And I found it agreeable.

    For loneliness, I thought, is an opportunity. Only in such a state may ordinary minds, spared comparison with superior minds, emerge victorious from thoughts which might prove perilous to explore in company. Loneliness presents no challengers to undermine by argument and stipulation those comforting theories born of it. Loneliness is not deadening, even for dullards who contrive against the condition because it forces them to think. Unless men are transformed into true imbeciles and simply stare at nothing, or play with their physical toys, then loneliness can form a magic platform which may transport the meek to thoughts of courage, or even cause the scoundrel to examine the benefits of honesty. Mere physical separation from other human beings can energize new conceptions for those usually incapable of any mental experiment. Yet to be thought lonely is automatically to be pitied, which is an insult, since pity is most loudly offered by the patronizing and hypocritical. Pity for the lonely speaks of uncleanliness and rejection (poor fellow, he is not as admirable as I know myself to be); thoughts so often nursed by those terrified of separation from the mass.

    Here sustained in space by a heartless machine, I sank into loneliness gratefully because there was, for whatever time the condition might last, no limitation upon my fancies or conceits.”

  • I had a similar post recently, although I think I have come to a different conclusion about a majority of online relationships.

    I have grown comfortable with loneliness, as it allows the best of me to flourish, unfortunately, my wife won’t stop knocking on the door :)

  • Ramana says:

    Hi Chris, you call it ‘aloneness’ or ‘loneliness’ or whatever other word, but in my opinion, that’s just the way life is – it changes… You can ‘create’ or ‘accept’ – which are better than just being sad or worry – and be thankful for your individual time with Life and God. :)

  • Melissa says:

    While I have traveled a number of times on my own, and I have experienced the loneliness that accompanies independent travelers, the loneliness I have experienced lately has been one experienced right here at home – through lack of friends with common goals as mine. They say you are the sum of the 5 people you hang around the most, which for me is a sobering thought. I don’t have one close friend who is an entrepreneur, let alone someone who wants to bring about change in the world around them. It’s extremely isolating and difficult to maintain momentum when those around you are often telling you to stick with the 9-to-5 and remain “average”. While it’s great to have a community like this to visit from time to time, I find it difficult not having close friends who I can meet up with and brainstorm with, which can act as a support group of sorts. Any suggestions for building that group both at home and online? Thanks! :)

  • Your buddy, Stephen Hopson, send me your article.

    It was just the right message on the right day in the right moment.

    I had just put a comment on his blog how the dismal weather made me feel so lonely and trapped in my house.

    Stumbled it. Everyone should read this article. And I will be following you from now on.

    Thank you, Chris.

  • Linnea says:

    I’m looking for a balance between loneliness and aloneness. I left my accounting job (yay!) and have about a month’s worth of plans and obligations that make staying home, alone, a good idea for now. It’s been a few years since I’ve had quite this much time to myself. It’s reassuring to read that being alone can be good for creativity (and vice versa), because I’ve set aside large chunks of this time for writing.

    -Linnea

  • Jason Weaver says:

    Hi Chris,
    Just read this post and wondered if you were tracking your travels via Dopplr? The annual report would make for interesting viewing.
    Cheers!

  • Slinky says:

    I adore spending time alone. I think it’s part of why I’m such a night owl. I love how it is at 4 in the morning, when it feels like you’re the only person in the world. I love to just sit surrounded by silence. I think everyone should spend time alone with themselves so that they get to know themselves.

  • Thanks for another nice post.

    I’m never really alone for long when I travel but it can be a hard concept for some (like customs officers everywhere who are suspicious of single travellers) to accept. For me, balance is the important thing. It is okay to be introspective & thoughtful sometimes, but it would drive me crazy if I did it too much.

  • Aaron says:

    Thanks for your post. I ran into this site last week and have been reading up on your journey to conquer the world! I’m hoping to do something similar once I graduate from school.

    Oh btw..I live in Seattle as well. So hopefully we’ll be able to meet up someday…when you’re home that is.

    Aaron

  • Sheila says:

    I’m often alone, but rarely lonely. I’m a fiction writer, and wherever I go, my whole cast of characters comes too: the petite pain-relief specialist who’s about to get a very nasty shock about her boyfriend, the mother of a colicky newborn, Conan the Librarian, and the genetically modified hamster.

    No-one could ever put me in solitary confinement.

  • Alex says:

    Nice post, Chris. I’m someone that believes that no one experience is more or less valid than another, rather, serves it’s own purpose and incorporates itself into your identity.

    Loneliness is a feeling I’m all too familiar with. Even after a night of partying with my friends in college, I always sort of went back to my dorm feeling alone.

    I think that we all have the an ego that serves as the guardian mechanism that defines the bounderies of our identity – ensuring we don’t identify too much with objects and things outside of ourselves. Yet, we yearn for someone to empathize us, to be a witness to our lives, and loves us for who we are. Loneliness in this instance is the inner self crying out against the ego.

  • lark says:

    I read once that extroverts get their strength from other people, while introverts get their strength from within.

  • Great post! I wanted to reply to the other Melissa who posted on January 26th. I TOTALLY relate to your post and share your difficulty in meeting people who share these values as well. My thought, at this point, is that it is time for me to just follow my path and sense of adventure and purpose. In the meantime, I am hoping that I will meet some like-minded souls on the way. They say that each person we meet is put into our lives for a reason. Of course, many times we will never know what that is. But, as I have found out in my life, you never know who that next acquaintance will be whom you will find yourself calling your “best friend” 20 years from now. In the meantime, keep searching! As is evidenced by this site, many like-minded folk are out there! :) PS: LOVE your cause! Keep up the good work! :)

  • Nomadic Matt says:

    I’m never lonely on the road. Like you said, there is someone always wanting to meet up or someone you might while traveling. And with so many travel bloggers out there, I find I can’t go to a city anymore without knowing one person…

  • Melissa says:

    @(“a second Melissa) Melissa (great name by the way) ;) Thanks for your comment! It’s always comforting to know you are not alone in feeling, well…alone! It is a learning process and I’m making connections here and there. I guess it is inevitable in the beginning to feel isolated – especially if you are often working from home. I will be on the road soon for a few months – part of the time with my boyfriend and part with just me and the road. We’ll see how things go. I do meet people occasionally who are going through the same things as me, and we can relate and hash out ideas and brainstorm, but those moments are few and far between. Hopefully, that will change once I get out on the road and start meeting more people. Thanks again for the reply and the compliments – and right back at you! Great idea – just adorable! I have three nephews and so haven’t been able to enjoy the fun “little girl” stuff, yet! Maybe one day. Good luck! :)

  • I love that you touched on the somber part of traveling – many friends and family assume I am skipping and hula-hooping around the world with a Crest commercial smile on my face every day.

    The truth is that the further we put ourselves out of our comfort zone, the more we are forced to go deeper into who we are. I think that contemplative time leads to self discovery that can later turn into understanding new concepts that we share with others.

    Sometimes things hit me in the strangest of ways and I am emotionally jarred until I spend alone time with a particular incident and figure out why. And, sometimes my sadness is just for the world; it is just sadness for how things are.

    Last night I was walking down a small street in Bangkok and ran into a soi dog (street dog) that I recognized. Usually, this dog is very friendly and happy and he shied away and looked at me distrustfully. I had a very emotional moment because I realized that this change has happened to most adults I know. One moment we are happy trusting children embracing the world and racing forward indiscriminately – and the next, we are guarded, jaded, and mistrusting.

    In a moment I was overwhelmed by the sadness of what most people miss in life once this change occurs. Because you cannot have new life experiences unless you are completely willing to trust and have faith.

    A good friend recently told me that she read a quote ~ goes something like this:
    The universe will not give you ideas that you are not ready for.

    So I commend all of you fellow travelers out there, willing to face yourself, face the world, and face the loneliness in order to better understand who you are. My hope is that in your times of loneliness you can remember that the universe is there and is ready to give you exactly what you need.

  • Alex McDowell says:

    I love your post Chris. First off, I want to say I absolutely love your site. Whenever I need any inspiration, I always turn here. Second, this article has prompted some introspective thinking, and a recall of the not to distant past. When I was in Paris this summer, although I went with some friends, there was time when we split up and were alone. This time away from everyone really allowed me some time to reflect upon the recent past. Also being alone, I found that one learns more about themselves if, say, they get lost. I got lost around Montmartre and just walked the streets immersed in the culture and my own thoughts. I had no place to be, and plenty of time to spare, so I just wandered. Eventually I stumbled upon a metro stop, and shuffled down the stairs to the metro. Standing just before that tempting yellow line, I waited for the it. When the train arrived, the air momentarily breezed past me, blowing the slightly humid air away, and it felt refreshing. And that brief moment when the wind died, and before the woosh of the doors opening, I sort of woke up. The time alone had allowed me to centrallize myself and become at peace.

    The more important part is that I was not lonely, I was alone, and I learned how valuable it is to me. I had never been alone in a different country and culture, even though France is not as different of a culture as Ulaanbaatar, for example, it was still an amazing experience to discover something I really enjoy.

  • Hayley says:

    I am probably the youngest person here as a fresh high school graduate, but I feel at home. I will be on a foreign exchange come August 7, and my eyes are just opening to the world and life I want to live. I have spent much time thinking and being alone. It ususally brings me into a sad slump for weeks on end, but I wouldn’t trade those weeks for anything. Some of the best artwork, thoughts, and actions have been made in my times of loneliness. Thanks for having a place I can feel at home at. It is reassuring.

  • Mary Miller-McNutt says:

    Great post. I like the alone time. I can create better art and watch the light slowly spread across the sky at 4:30 in the morning. The quiet and peaceful beauty
    is not interrupted by anothers presence. I keep my camera handy to record the swiftly changing light. Beautiful. What a way to start the day!

  • Guillermo says:

    Good article and comments.
    Acceptances of suffer and happiness at the same time, is a part of life. We came to this world and we will leave it alone.
    Being in touch we our inside allows us to be have relations with the outside.

  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your
    efforts and I am waiting for your next post thanks once again.

Your comments are welcome! Please be nice and use your real name.

If you have a website, include it in the website field (not in the text of the comment).

Want to see your photo in the comments? Visit Gravatar.com to get one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>