“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
― Kurt Vonnegut
On online writer friend recently wrote an excellent piece on the curse of loneliness which prompted me to write about it as well.
They exist in the ones and zeroes that make up the words and photos of lives we see on Facebook and other social media platforms. Sometimes they’re so real we can almost reach into the screen and touch them.
But there’s the rub – they exist at the moment in cyberspace, almost ethereal. I can communicate with words, send photos, share distant laughs and cries but the warmth and psychic closeness that comes from sitting face to face over coffee or beer is lost. Nowadays, for many, it’s the best we can do.
We have another term for meetings that actually involve ‘the human touch,’ ‘in real life,’ or IRL in the parlance of the digital community. We look forward to these but also fear them: for many of us, we’ve been out of the IRL community for so long we’re rusty on making small talk and self-conscious of seeming social awkwardness.
When ‘online,’ I can set the parameters for interaction. I choose my words carefully, re-write them if necessary, agonize over what photos and videos will be less cringe-worthy, and then, with equal parts of excitement and trepidation, hit ‘send.’
As of my latest count, I have exactly 200 friends on Facebook. Of these, perhaps I have met 50 IRL, not counting classmates I have still not seen in 35 years. Of those 200 Facebook friends, I know 63 solely because of my wife
And I am crushingly lonely.
I have been reluctant to write about my loneliness because I didn’t want it to implicate my wife at all. But there are people who experience a different kind of loneliness in marriage that has little to do with the union itself.
Last Friday, my wife took the day off to go to the Cleveland Zoo with some of her knitting friends. She’s met an army of knitters and also has friends from her school days she sees on a semi-regular basis. She’s also chummy with her co-workers in a way I can’t be (readers of this site understand) and goes out to dinner and other social events in addition to attending a Thursday night knitting group.
It isn’t easy keeping friends when you have psychological conditions that can make you unsociable or isolationist at times. My wife is not to blame for my condition. If it weren’t for her friends, I’d have no IRL friends at all. But they are hers, first.
So when she’s out, I’m home doing laundry while keeping up to date on the damn Facebook.
Most psychologists believe two people in a marriage can’t be the sole support for each other. While marriage forms a team of two people with reasonably close interests, both partners should have friends and interests outside the marriage to grow and nurture themselves socially.
It wasn’t always this way with me. In my first marriage, our social whirl was composed of my high school friends. We all lived fairly close to each other and it seemed a natural fit in our young adult lives.
Then things happen – divorces, moving for new jobs, political disagreements (a new factor) and the bonds of friendship that seemed so strong, fray and break over time. Some of my best friends from high school are also deceased. And I still can’t believe they’re gone.
As for my relatives, almost all of them are dead or in parts unknown. I know of three cousins and my sister, none of whom will talk to me. That’s it.
One day you turn around and it’s summer
Next day you turn around and it’s fall
And the springs and the winters of a lifetime
Whatever happened to them all?*
Where did they all go? They slipped through my fingers like sand. I have yearbooks, photographs and memories. I have a fully stocked bar and entertainment room in the basement that has seen outside guests entertained three times in five years.
Trying my best not to look too obvious, I wave to the digits and byte-people on Facebook ‘hey, I’m free! Hey come over, we’re not doing anything!’
I already lean on my wife too much. We finish each other’s sentences; we jokingly say ‘get out of my head’ way too often. We really don’t have to talk about much because we instinctively know what the other will say. The only conversation variables we have are what to get at the grocery store or where to take a vacation.
I can be having the worst depression on any given day and then, almost by accident, get into a conversation with one of the clinicians where I work. The rush I get from those interaction is exhilarating – the give and take, the talk of anything other than sports or Donald Trump, the excitement of getting to peer into another’s mind. For me it’s like a drowning man getting pure oxygen in the nick of time.
For a guy who gets nervous going downtown to see a baseball game, I would gladly drive hundreds of miles for that kind of oxygen. But I’m always afraid … I won’t fit in.
The longer I stay outside the IRL world, the scarier going back in there becomes. But like it or not, it’s where real life takes place, with all its joys and messiness.
I have to find my way back somehow. I was not meant to live like this.
*Frank Sinatra, The September of My Years