This week I have been listening to the wonderful podcast “S-Town”. Pulled into a world I hadn’t experienced inhabited by people I didn’t know, all drawn in vivid colour by the excellent narration and their own seeming ordinariness underpinned with fascinating complexity, there was something else which kept me hooked in. As I listened I found myself on familiar ground, noticing a disconnection, the shape of a lonely figure picked out in the crowd, a tale I so often hear sitting in my little room with the people who, to my great fortune, decide to tell me their stories.
Many of those who choose to come and talk to me are lonely. They are lonely not because they are without people around them but because their connection with others, or themselves, isn’t what they want it to be. Perhaps through subjugation of their own needs or a diminished view of their own value. It could be because words that need to be spoken remain unsaid, or that too much has been said and done already. It could be that they are, temporarily at least, struggling to find their place in the world.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to settle for our own identity and resist the temptation to be someone else, someone who fits in. In finding the courage to be ourselves, or wearying of the effort required to be acceptably different, we might fear rejection. It is hard to be seen as an outlier and even harder to accept the notion that we are all “aliens” and that there is no such state as “normal”. We want to be noticed and different, and the same, all at once.
If you are seen strong, capable, smart, caring, mature, independent, others might look at you in awe rather than with the realisation that underneath the apparently steely exterior beats the same heart of vulnerability which is in us all. Some people are cowed by intellect for fear that it might eclipse them, and so feel safer around people with whom they feel a power they don’t really possess.
Something that struck me about John B McLemore, the central character in S-Town, was how often he projected into the world an angry and scornful perspective which obscured the deep emotional pain and frustration he so obviously felt. Anger covers too many deeper emotions and it covers them well. Anger used with abandon prevents us from deep connection because other people are repelled by it rather than drawn closer. Anger is the thick woollen coat we wear whenever the weather is too cold for shirt sleeves. It is often inappropriate and excessive protection but it’s the first thing we grab hold of. Under the anger we so often wear the thin cotton of fear and hurt, loneliness and despair, but it is impossible to see, and we are invisible too.
Consequently others see us as stronger than we are. We are relied upon readily but there is ignorance of our own need for care and comfort, that sometimes we don’t want to do the holding but, instead, long to be held. My mother seemed to misunderstand this the night she died when she offered comforting words to my sister, no doubt fearing she would descend into her own living darkness without the guidance of her mum, but said nothing to me. I have no doubt it was because she saw me as “strong enough” and my sister as “too vulnerable”. In reality I had simply chosen to wear a thicker coat which, ironically, I had inherited from my mother.
We hide vulnerability at our peril because while it might make us believe we are less susceptible to pain (we are not) it prevents us from the deep connection we truly want. It keeps us lonely even in the presence of countless other people.
The real beauty of our existence is in its uniqueness. The only way to true intimacy is through separateness. The only route to deep connection is an acceptance of who we are alone, singular and connected to nobody but ourselves. To be lonely does not require you to be alone, simply to demand you are never will be. It is our inability to be comfortable with ourselves that increases the likelihood that we will feel lonely.
To open ourselves to deep emotion and love means that we will be at much greater risk of pain if something should happen, if we should lose what we treasured so much. But the pain of loss is amplified immeasurably by our never having opened up and experienced deep connection in the first place.