Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A Solitary Summer

WARNING: The following post lies somewhere on the border between philosophical and just depressing.

I am home for the summer, which means three months of relative social isolation and a significantly decreased level of structured activity. To many, a three month vacation sounds like bliss. But let me tell you, it is easier said than done. At risk of incurring the annoyed frustration of those not fortunate enough to have a summer break, I will attempt to explain why I have often found the past (it hasn’t even been a) week so difficult.


One obvious reason is that empty time gives ample opportunity to think about things that one would rather forget. Left without distractions, all the worries, anxieties, and hurt that you try so diligently to ignore are suddenly very present—and there is nowhere to hide.


The second reason is loneliness. Many of my friends in similar situations have complained of feeling lonely. Personally, I have suffered acutely from the same malady. Yet it seems somewhat unreasonable. Ok, so I’m not seeing people nearly as often as I did during the year when we all lived in a dorm on top of each other, but I still have friends, right? There’s always email and g-chat and the telephone—and one or two people in town who I can drive over to see every once in not-too-long-a-while. Yet alone in my room in the evening, the feeling of loneliness grows oppressive. An equivalent solitary night in the dorm would not have me feeling this way—why?


I think the answer lies in the fact that an extended absence allows me to realize how little I am needed.


I am blessed with many wonderful friends, yet how many of them do I really talk to over the summer? Which of my friends feels the need to call me, specifically me, on a consistent basis? Honestly, very few, if any. We’re in touch, but mostly because they, too, are lonely and crave human contact. It isn’t me they need. No one truly cares enough to feel that a day would be lacking without me, without my unique input and perspective.


Of course, this is perfectly normal. Very few people are that reliant on their friends. But we don’t like to remember that—and on an ordinary basis, we don’t have to. We can feel important; involved in each other’s lives every day because we see each other every day—and that is reassuring. But here, over the summer, in my dimly-lit room at night on my own, I remember that I am just one insignificant person. And that can be scary; and it can make me feel alone, in a way that irrationally whispers to my soul, "No escape."


Perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing—an occasional reminder of one’s relative unimportance is probably quite healthy. But then again, three months of the brutal truth is likely more than I need—though hopefully not more than I can handle.


Clarification: The comments on this post indicated that I wasn't totally clear about my intention and meaning; therefore, my expanded response is as follows (as copied from the comments on this post):


I never meant to intimate that close friends don’t truly care about each other—of course we do—but that is not the same as needing each other. Certainly, our lives are enhanced by our interactions, and we miss each other when we’re apart for extended periods of time. And naturally, when things happen in our lives, we want to discuss them with our friends—but in a more general sense. In other words, because I need to vent or want an outsider’s perspective, I will select one of my friends to talk to. Often, though, that choice will be dependent on who’s logged in to g-chat when I want to talk, or who is around and will be open to listening. Except in occasional specific situations, we don’t usually single out one individual as the person whose unique opinion we seek. Generally, it isn’t, “Wow, this issue just occurred to me—I’ve got to call SJ to hear what she has to say,” or “I won’t feel that I have a complete perspective on this until I’ve heard Erachet’s opinion.”

Nor do I think that it would necessarily be better in any way if this was the case. In my experience, such intense investment in a specific person primarily occurs only in romantic relationships or in a situation where one person is viewed as mentor to the other (in which case, the mentee needs the mentor, but not vice versa). However, being confronted by the reality that there is no one who relies on you to such a degree, who would find his/her life significantly less comprehensible without you, isn’t so much fun. We don’t like to remember the fact that when our friends—even close friends—are no longer in close proximity to us, we often drift apart.

Also, I did not intend to imply that I do not know how to be alone. I think it is extremely important for people to be comfortable enough with themselves to spend time alone; such time is vital for introspection and self-discovery. During the school year, I enjoy spending time on my own—reading, writing, walking, watching, and thinking—which is why I wondered what makes the summer different: why does being alone suddenly become oppressive?

This post was not about having a negative attitude. I didn’t write it merely to express my loneliness or to receive assurances from friends (though those are, of course, additional perks). I wrote it because in contemplating my distress I came to a realization about why I was feeling that way, and I thought that realization was interesting for what it reveals about human nature.

8 comments:

Erachet said...

I think the answer lies in the fact that an extended absence allows me to realize how little I am needed.


I am blessed with many wonderful friends, yet how many of them do I really talk to over the summer? Which of my friends feels the need to call me, specifically me, on a consistent basis? Honestly, very few, if any. We’re in touch, but mostly because they, too, are lonely and crave human contact. It isn’t me they need. No one truly cares enough to feel that a day would be lacking without me, without my unique input and perspective.


1. I know how you feel
2. I feel exactly the same way
3. I think about calling you every day! I just thought it wasn't good to feed into my withdrawal from friends (and specific friends, not just human contact in general), but maybe I'm wrong. Your last few sentences in the part that I quoted there is so untrue! Don't feel that your friends don't need you, specifically you, or your input or anything, because we do - at least, I know I do. I miss you TONS!

I really, truly do know what you mean. It sort of feels like you can just fall right out of people's lives and they'll barely notice or care. I'm still trying to tell myself that's not true. I don't think it's true. It may be true for some people, but not for those who call themselves your close friends. If there's a true bond of friendship there - that doesn't go away.

jackie said...

Feels like every other summer before....sigh. I totally relate to the sentiment.

I guess the solution is to just try to enjoy summer for every good thing that it's worth!

the apple said...

It isn’t me they need. No one truly cares enough to feel that a day would be lacking without me, without my unique input and perspective.
BZZ! Wrong!

A few things:

1. I totally relate -- if not this summer, then for sure last year's, as you may recall. The dispersion that occurs at the end of the semester has a bit of a depressing effect on us all, I think - we're all so used to having people around 24/7, literally, that going from 60 to 0 is a big shift. You're not alone in feeling ... well, alone.

2. In a way, I think that this is the downside of living in a dorm -- it's such a bubble of constant stimulation that we almost don't get a chance to learn what it's like to be by ourselves and be okay that way. And this is probably not uncommon, either.

3. Don't let feeling lonely make you feel unimportant, because it's just not true. I admit to being terrible at being in touch over the phone - the only time I was really good about it was last summer when I would cry to my friends just about every single night. But if I don't call you, it doesn't mean that I'm not thinking about you and hoping you're happy/having a good time every day -- it just means that I'm horrible at calling people, but your post is definitely pushing me to be better at that.

4. You can do it! You can survive feeling lonely and you can overcome it, too. You are a strong person, and I know you can battle the negativity that seems to take over on its own. We're rooting for you. (Also, and I know I'm totally not the person to be lecturing people on attitude adjustment, but I have found that when I actively want to change the way I view something, even just by repeating to myself how it's not that bad, and how I'm having fun on my own, etc -- it really can work. I don't want to minimize your feelings that you expressed in the post, because they are very raw and real. But it *is* possible to talk yourself into feeling better, and that can bring about actually feeling better too.)

I love you and I miss you! I want you to be happy and to enjoy every minute of your time back home.
[BIG HUG]

SJ said...

Thanks ya’ll—I appreciate your support, and I miss you too!

That said, Erachet and apple, I still think that what I wrote originally is true, and applies to most of us. I never meant to intimate that we don’t truly care about each other—of course we do—but that is not the same as needing each other. Certainly, our lives are enhanced by our interactions, and we miss each other when we’re apart for extended periods of time. And naturally, when things happen in our lives, we want to discuss them with our friends—but in a more general sense. In other words, because I need to vent or want an outsider’s perspective, I will select one of my friends to talk to. Often, though, that choice will be dependent on who’s logged in to g-chat when I want to talk, or who is around and will be open to listening. Except in occasional specific situations, we don’t usually single out one individual as the person whose unique opinion we seek. Generally, it isn’t, “Wow, this issue just occurred to me—I’ve got to call SJ to hear what she has to say,” or “I won’t feel that I have a complete perspective on this until I’ve heard Erachet’s opinion.”

Nor do I think that it would necessarily be better in any way if this was the case. In my experience, such intense investment in a specific person primarily occurs only in romantic relationships or in a situation where one person is viewed as mentor to the other (in which case, the mentee needs the mentor, but not vice versa). However, being confronted by the reality that there is no one who relies on you to such a degree, who would find his/her life significantly less comprehensible without you, isn’t so much fun. We don’t like to remember the fact that when our friends—even close friends—are no longer in close proximity to us, we often drift apart.

Also, I did not intend to imply that I do not know how to be alone. I think it is extremely important for people to be comfortable enough with themselves to spend time alone; such time is vital for introspection and self-discovery. During the school year, I enjoy spending time on my own—reading, writing, walking, watching, and thinking—which is why I wondered what makes the summer different: why does being alone suddenly become oppressive?

This post was not about having a negative attitude. I didn’t write it merely to express my loneliness or to receive assurances from friends (though those are, of course, additional perks). I wrote it because in contemplating my distress I came to a realization about why I was feeling that way, and I thought that realization was interesting for what it reveals about human nature.

Erachet said...

which is why I wondered what makes the summer different: why does being alone suddenly become oppressive?

I think the difference is that when you are alone in the dorm, it's because you choose to be alone but you always know that if you ever start to feel lonely or if you want to hang out, you can leave your room and find a friend. In the summer when most of your friends are away and you don't have that option, you are forced into being alone perhaps more often and for longer stretches of time than you'd otherwise have chosen. How many times has it happened that we spend days alone and then call each other to go to the caf for dinner because we haven't seen anyone all day? Now that is no longer an option. Being alone becomes more oppressive because there is no way to just leave your room and rejoin the crowd. There is no crowd, there are no friends to go to dinner with.

That, I think, is the major difference. At least, that's the way I see it. I hope that made some sort of sense.

Northern Light said...

Are you in solitary confinement? Are you in a garret? Are you REALLY alone? Or...could you reach out to those who are in your environment, whose support/friendship you perhaps neglect, spurn or dismiss?
I think of those with aphasia or cerebral palsy, who cannot express themselves and must truly feel alone...If you can speak and write, you can connect. You are therefore NOT alone and need not feel lonely unless you choose not to use your ability to communicate.

SJ said...

NL - are you trying to say that no reasonable person could possibly feel lonely unless she was completely unable to communicate? This simply isn't true. Loneliness is an emotion with a cause -- I can certainly choose how I react to it, but you cannot deny that I (and many of my friends) have felt it. The fact that there are people around does not mean that it is impossible to feel lonely. In fact, sometimes it can be loneliest in a crowd.

Daphne said...

It is certainly humbling to realize that as much as we value each other's friendships, we don't specifically rely on each other for advice or insight or anything really. And, I know you understand that this is normal and healthy. But let me just tell you, that as someone who has had a lot of unhealthy friendships with some very needy people, generally speaking, it is so much better to not have your friends rely on you too much. When a friend feels the need to constantly call you, to talk specifically to you, it gets oppressive. It often feels like the person is using you, and it certainly doesn't feel like a true friendship. As healthy individuals, we are often able to make do without specific friends, to learn how to get along with other people or to learn how to get along on our own. This doesn't mean that we don't miss each others unique insights, etc.; it just means that we're good at healthfully accommodating ourselves (which is why it’s probably so hard to keep in touch).
I know that you probably understand all this - I just thought I'd add my "unique insight". : )