Late in his life – later, in fact, than he knew – my grandfather wrote in a letter to my mother that he had finally mastered the art of being alone without feeling lonely. It had taken him decades to learn how to do this, and so while he sounded proud of this newly acquired skill, there was also the sense of quiet regret lingering among his words. I read in them his unspoken wish that he had understood all of this sooner.
Which is the way most of us go through life, wishing we had understood more of it sooner, wishing it didn’t take an entire lifetime to learn how to live. If only we had known then what we know now. If only we could have learned the lessons of our experiences before experiencing them. It is impossible, of course, but still we wish, and wonder, and quietly mourn all that could have been.
There are many lessons in loneliness. Throughout the course of a life, we continuously learn how much of it we can bear. For some, it is very little. For others, the amount seems exponentially large. For all of us, the extent to which we can survive in our loneliness shapes us into the people we become.
I like to be alone, which is not to say that I don’t love company, but only that I mastered the art of being alone without feeling lonely much quicker than my grandfather did. I am okay by myself. I know how to ward off boredom. I know how to enjoy silence. I know how to fill the quiet hours with production and reflection and hope.
I don’t think it’s ever sad to be alone. But I think it’s sad to be lonely. And I think not everyone can have the first without the second. I think some people need people in ways I have been too afraid to allow myself to need.
Because it is easy for me to love, but it is not easy for me to need. It is not easy for me to give up my independence fully, to offer it up as a gift to another, to wonder what will happen to it when it no longer belongs solely to me. It is not easy for me because I fear the void that loss of independence will leave behind. I fear it is a loneliness too great for me to bear.
I know that love can exist without need. And need can exist without love. And when these two longings become too far imbalanced, I know that it is painful. Because as sad as it is to be alone and lonely, it is far worse to feel lonely when not alone. It is the worst kind of loneliness that arrives in the company of others. It feels the most inescapable. It feels exponentially large.
I suspect it is something my grandfather felt, having need that outweighed love. I have felt it too, having love that outweighed need. From opposite ends of the spectrum, we spent decades trying to master the art of loneliness – how to avoid it, and how to live with it, how to understand it, and how to determine how much of it we could bear. We built our lives out of this loneliness. We allowed people in and kept them out from the depths of this fear.
And I wish we could have known each other. I wish we could have met. I wish we could have kept each other company while learning how to be alone. I wish we could have loved and needed one another, because I think we would have. I think I do.
I think reading the letters he wrote late in his life, so early on in my own, is a way of learning lessons from experiences I haven’t had yet. It is a way of understanding things sooner. It is a way of feeling connected and a little less lonely. It is a way of remembering to be less afraid, before it is too late.
Because it is already later than we think, and it takes a long time to master the art of living.