Two years ago, during my freshman year of college when I was still in Ithaca, I stumbled upon a book in my Amazon suggestions. The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan. I mentioned Keegan in a post I made last year about my favorite women writers, but I want to explore a concept that she mentioned in her book; more specifically, her last essay as the editor of The Yale Daily News – the opposite of loneliness.
“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.”
In the two years since I first read Keegan’s collection of essays and stories, I’ve kept going back to that idea. What exactly is the opposite of loneliness? Loneliness itself is subjective, and its definition varies from person to person, depending on what they’re feeling or experiencing, or what they associate with being alone.
Thinking back to my freshman year, I associated loneliness with physicality – actually doing things by myself. I was so sensitive about going places without company; more specifically, how it made me look, because for so long I was told that I would meet my lifelong friends in college. Whenever I went to the dining hall alone, a pit would form in my stomach when I looked around me and noticed everyone laughing and talking in their cliques. I longed for that sense of belonging, but I was thinking of it in the wrong way. At least for me, the psychological component of doing things alone is much bigger than what you’re doing physically. And now, two years later, I feel silly for letting myself think that I’m a lonely person. You’re only alone if you let yourself believe that you are. While I’ve considered myself to be an independent person for much of my adolescence and young adult life, it has taken me longer than I thought it would to grow comfortable enough in my own skin to be able to complete bigger tasks and adventures on my own, without worrying about how it looks to the public eye. Doing things by yourself isn’t a big deal in actuality – it’s an important part of self-growth.
Now, though, it’s not uncommon to see me waiting for a bus or a train, walking somewhere, or in one of my usual spots in Cleveland with a journal or book. Last week I ran into a friend from school in Tower City on one of my walks, and he jokingly said “I was thinking about you, like, ‘I feel like Grace right now, she just goes places and sits down.'” If I want to do something, I don’t immediately reach for my phone and ask someone to come with me. I pack a bag, and just go. It’s an unapologetic part of who I am now, and I don’t find anything weird about it. While I have a solid group of friends, my social stability isn’t dependent on them, and the ache for another person’s company doesn’t linger as much as it used to. Yes, it’s true that moments can be beautiful when shared with other people, but I value any time that I have to myself, because before I belong to anyone else, I belong deeply to myself.
Take yesterday, for example – I had the day off, and it was probably the last of Cleveland’s 70-degree Sundays (in October, no less). So I left my building, waited for the bus, and went all the way to University Circle, my soundtrack of choice being The Lumineers’ Cleopatra album. When I stepped off the bus, the sun was shining, and I smiled. I made my way to Wade Lagoon and walked around for a while, and entered the art museum. While I’ve gone to the museum by myself before, this time felt different. Going through the galleries, pausing every so often to study the different sculptures and paintings, exchanging shy smiles with couples and mothers and other people who were having a day to themselves like me. Even though I was alone, I still had the feeling that I was a part of something.
When I was done on the first floor, I rode the escalator and continued my wandering in Post-Impressionism, visiting Monet’s Water Lilies and paying my respects to Van Gogh. After saying a quick hello to Jackson Pollack, Georgia O’Kieffe, and Pablo Picasso, I went to the balcony, which looks over all of Wade Lagoon.
While Marina is right, we don’t have a specific word to pinpoint the opposite of loneliness, I finally realized what it was. We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness because it’s a feeling. It’s intangible – it’s not something you find somewhere waiting for you, and you can pick it up with your hands, and carry it with you. Standing on the museum balcony yesterday afternoon, I didn’t focus on the fact that I was spending the day with myself – I focused on the fact that it was enough for me to just be there. I didn’t feel lonely at all – I felt happy, mainly because I had finally gained that sense of enoughness. The opposite of loneliness is a feeling that lives inside of you, and it comes to life when you allow it to. There’s a level of vulnerability to it, though, but not in the sense of making yourself vulnerable to other people – it’s about being vulnerable to the world around you.
2017 is ending in just a couple of months, and since January I’ve gotten to know my city on a more personal level, and by exploring so much I’ve learned more about myself, too. The most important thing I’ve taken away from this year is that for the longest time I was in need of myself. I needed to learn how to become a better person, a stronger person, without someone else by my side.
If you find the opposite of loneliness, or have ever felt it, I hope that it was a beautiful, eye-opening experience for you. You deserve to feel that way as much as you possibly can. In the meantime, don’t hold yourself back.