how to fight loneliness
Sometimes the goals we have that seem small are the hardest to complete. They are often about establishing habits, and they are about things that are conceptually so easy that in practice we somehow forget to do them. They are usually the stuff that failed resolutions are made of. Losing ten pounds? Not that hard. Not calling your ex? Pretty easy. Still, there is something about consistently filling up time with an effort that is paralyzing.
To this end, I have spent the better part of the last year intending to write and run every day for a week. It’s not a sustainable model for much longer than a week because life gets in the way, but I’ve viewed it as a jump-start into better habits. Even in a week, though, I’ve watched things fall apart. There is the middle of the week lull where things can suddenly feel horrible and one of your best friends messages you and asks if you want to have snacks and drinks. There’s the morning that you wake up and cannot peel yourself out of bed at 5:30, even after you have established the well-documented habits of your smartest allies. There are days when people die and days when you lose your mind and days when you are possessed by a demon whose destructive nature is quieted only by nachos and Manhattans.
What I am saying here is this: It is November, and I have only just now written and gone running every day for a week. After seven days of this, I had convinced myself that I would probably turn into a unicorn or a fairy or some other mythical and contented creature. Instead, on the eighth day I had an unsolicited meltdown, the specifics of which no longer matter but were ugly, tear-stained, and wholly bereft of an upside.
It is now day thirteen; tomorrow will be two weeks. In those two weeks, we have collectively – “we” being this city, our society, my group of friends – lost so many fucking battles. Some of these are very public and involve the mayor of New York saying we don’t have absolute rights; some of them are so personal and so heartwrenching that we cannot really even talk about them. Some of them are not my business. Some of them are things that, when you asked me about them at the start of this year, I would have told you I believed in with all my heart. This is what we talk about when we talk about fault, and when we talk about failure.
The question hanging over our heads is pervasive and hard to avoid even as we make awkward jokes: Where do we go from here? I told a number of people today that I was going to leave my office, buy a bottle of bourbon, go for a run, and write some words that will save us all. Those first three things were easy. At this point, I am starting to see efforts turn into habits and I understand that my brain works much, much, better if I force my body into motion before I do it. The words themselves are tricker. I asked a dear friend of mine recently what she does when she has a soul-crushingly rough day. “I go home, make myself a really good dinner, and I read The Phantom Tollbooth,” she said.
“That’s really cute,” I told her.
“It is cute,” she replied, “the first twelve times you do it, but not really after that.”
What I didn’t tell her at the time was that my routine for soul-crushing days is very similar. The meal usually includes nachos, though its only necessary ingredient is whiskey. The book is one of a few rotating titles, but more often than not I find myself curled up in bed with the writings of William James, because as far as I am concerned there is no modern thinker better poised to make us feel better. You know this by now, or you haven’t yet figured me out.
The follow-up essay to James’s oft-quoted “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings”, which speaks of the inability to grasp (& therefore pay attention to) others’ particular feelings, is the solid and stellar “What Makes a Life Significant.” Where I lack the words to soothe myself, William James does some of the heavy lifting for me:
If you say that this is absurd, and that we cannot be in love with everyone at once, I merely point out to you that, as a matter of fact, certain persons do exist with an enormous capacity for friendship and for taking delight in other people’s lives; and that such persons know more of truth than if their hearts were not so big. The vice of ordinary Jack and Jill affection is not its intensity, but its exclusions and its jealousies. Leave those out, and you see that the ideal I am holding up before you, however inpracticable today, yet contains nothing intrinsically absurd.
I know. I know. You know why I like this. But there’s more: James goes on to talk about how wild and weird and unfair the world around us is, and how at a particularly frazzled point in his life he went to a quiet retreat to get away from it all. Something curious happened, though, while he was there. He started to miss the shitty, wild world and its ups and downs. From here, he goes on a number of tangents about Tolstoy and Stevenson and the roughness of their worlds, and about work and heroism and ideals and what he heart-meltingly calls “pluck.” We can’t count on any of these things alone, he tells us, to make a life:
There must be some sort of fusion, some chemical combination among these principles, for a life objectively and thoroughly significant to result. Of course, this is a somewhat vague conclusion. But in a question of significance, of worth, like this, conclusions can never be precise. The answer of appreciation, of sentiment, is always a more or less, a balance struck by sympathy, insight, and good will. But it is an answer all the asme, a real conclusion. And in the course of getting it, it seems to me that our eyes have been opened to many important things. some of you are, perhaps, more livingly aware than you were an hour ago of the depths of worth that lie around you, hid in alien lives. And when you ask how much sympathy you ought to bestow…you have a rough standard for shaping your decision. In any case, your imagination is extended. You divine in the world about you matter for a little more humility on your part, and tolerance, reverence, and love for others; and you gain a certain inner joyfullness at the increased importance of our common life…worth more than large amounts of that certain technical and accurate information which we professors are supposed to be able to impart.
There is all this stuff that is happening to us. I wrote my last post about failure mostly because I wanted to acknowledge on some level that we’re totally failing, and that that is probably going to keep happening to us even though we try and our intentions are shiny and nice. In this failure, there rests a kind of raw feeling that makes you never want to feel feelings and and yet to wildly overshare at the same time. At any moment, I might fall off the face of your earth or I might say, “my heart feels really kind of broken and I don’t know what to do.”
But there is this: It is like what they say about learning new things and forming wrinkles in your brain. I will let you in on a secret right now. In these thirteen days, I have felt shifts in the way my mind works, and I have watched my writing change. This is as true as is the fact that my hips and my hamstrings are tightening. I think that what James is telling us is that it feels really, really unfortunate, but we’re forming necessary wrinkles in our hearts that will make us better later…if we let them.
“There are compensations,” James assures us, “and no outward changes of condition in life can keep the nightingale of its eternal meaning from singing in all sorts of different men’s hearts. That is the main fact to remember.” He tells me this every time I open that book when I’m really, really feeling low, and each time I close the book and I realize that he is fucking right on and we are all sort of running around being idiots if we think otherwise.
Earlier this week, I was telling Dorothy that my survival strategy right now involves only two things: write every day and run every day. “It has been nine days now,” I said to her, “and I have not yet turned into a unicorn.”
“Dude,” she replied, “you were already a unicorn.”