Loneliness and Generosity

A couple weeks ago, after my last Tuesday class, I went to see a band called Givers (they’re wonderful and you should check them out) play. Before they came on, a woman named Doe Paoro opened. She was such a dynamic performer (check her out too), and although the room was honestly pretty empty at that point, she was clearly thankful for every person there. It was such a good set, but then, towards the end, she said something that has stuck with me for two weeks: she looked at every one of us and said “I heard someone say recently that ‘listening is an act of generosity,’ so thank you for being so generous tonight.”

“Listening is an act of generosity.” (At the time I didn’t quite catch where this quote was from, but after a quick google search, I found it and the podcast she later discussed here.)

Listening is an act of generosity.

Going somewhere new for an extended period of time- be it a new school or a new town or a new job- will naturally find you in some lonesome places. In this new season of my life, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be alone, and what it means to be lonely. I’ve come to the conclusion that we all suffer through two types of loneliness in our lives: loneliness by proximity, and loneliness by understanding. (Side note: I use the word “suffer” here, but the truth is that you can also experience loneliness in a good way. It can foster creative and personal growth, and it can force you into some courageous situations. I’ve thought a lot about this kind of loneliness too, but for the purposes of my thoughts here, I’m going to keep addressing the loneliness that’s not so fun.)

Loneliness by proximity can best be described as that feeling you experience when you’re standing in a crowded room and no one knows your name. You’re lonely because you’re not near anyone you know, or anyone that you find comfortable. Even in a fun environment and even when you’re having a great time, if you’re in a new place, you’re bound to experience some loneliness by proximity. So there’s that.

Loneliness by understanding, however, is, in my experience, much more cutting. Loneliness by understanding is that feeling you experience when someone who should know you just…doesn’t. Loneliness by understanding makes you feel invisible and unknown- two of the worst things to feel, ever. The reason this type of loneliness stings so badly, is because it shows the truth of a relationship. It whispers to you that you don’t know someone as well as you thought you did, and that they don’t know you as well as you wish they did. It’s the realization that a certain comfort in your life was, on some level, an illusion. And it’s no fun. And when you’re adjusting to a new place, you feel it a lot.

All this to say, however, Doe Paoro perfectly summed up my thoughts on the subject when she repeated that listening is an act of generosity. In a world where we’re all struggling to feel visible and heard, the best defense against loneliness of any sort is the act of listening. Listening to the people close to us helps strengthen and build relationships, and listening to strangers helps show that we see them and that they’re valid and valuable. This listening takes many forms: asking someone about their weekend plans and following up on Monday to see how they went, or asking someone for their thoughts on current events and engaging in an honest and open conversation, or bringing a friend their favorite breakfast pastry the morning of a stressful day. In short, listening is paying attention. Listening is making an effort to know. Listening is an act of generosity.

So basically, I think all of our lives will get a lot better when we become more generous, and when we make an effort to better see and hear the people around us and express gratitude and understanding. Because, honestly, we’re all just out here yelling about our lives hoping somebody is going to hear, and hearing people really isn’t that hard.

When Everybody Else’s Life Works Out

One thing I’ve observed over the past two months: everything always seems to work out for people who are not me. People who are not me always seem to have all of their problems solved with the quick drop of a tear or a single emotional conversation or one easy phone call. People who are not me seem to always be a top priority in the universe, and people who are not me always seem to be completely visible and understood and valued in their respective environments.

Two thoughts that I’ve developed on this line of thinking:

  1. None of this is true.
  2. But even if all of it was true, I think there’s an upside to being un-worked out.

To begin- if I’m being honest, I know that nobody would ever confidently look me in the eyes and proclaim, “All of my issues have worked themselves out and all of my problems have been solved! My life is perfect and I cannot relate to anyone who has ever experienced pain or strife!” I understand this. Even when I feel like this isn’t true, on some level, I always know that it is. Even on my worst day, I know that somewhere out there is another person who also feels un-worked out and unprotected and invisible.

Because we all see people in relationship to ourselves, and because we most easily singularly identify them by their relationship to us, it’s easy to sometimes forget that people are multidimensional and can simultaneously celebrate achievement and goodness, and grieve disappointment and mistake. Our friends are not just our friends; they are also, simultaneously, daughters and sons and students and parents and people and musicians and athletes and hard-workers and slackers and go-getters and happy people and confused people and heartbroken people and scared people and brave people and lost people. Any one person can be any number of these people at the same time. While I might see a girl walking across a parking lot and think, “she just got the parking spot I wanted,” someone else might see that same girl and think, “she is the sweetest!” and a third party involved might see that same girl and think “she is always so involved, keeping herself so busy and working so hard!” All of these descriptions might be accurate, and all of them are definitely subjective, but none of them fully capture who this girl is. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why I, the only person on the entire planet who has ever struggled with anything at all in the history of the whole world, would mistakenly see this girl as having all of her issues worked out, because, for heaven’s sake, she did just get the only parking space left in this entire lot. Why does everything always work out for her?! Why not me?!

We all see the twisted logic here, and yet it’s still in our very nature as people to feel this way when we see ourselves struggling and we see everyone else just…not.

But what if I really was the only person on the whole planet whose life wasn’t working itself out? Is it really so bad to not have things falling into place?

I don’t think it is. I think there’s a certain magic involved in being un-worked out. I think there’s something really beautiful about the fact that I have no idea how the next year of my life is going to look. I have freedom. I have fear. I have apprehension and excitement and possibility, and these are things that not everybody has. These are things that I might one day lose. This flexibility-this uncertainty- will come and go and pass with the moments as my life begins to work itself out. One day I’m going to find myself looking not forward to surprises, but back on memories, and I will know, once and for all, how my life has turned out. It will all be worked out like a math problem at the bottom of a page, and that will be that. No more dream schools or dream jobs or dreams in general. Just reality. Just past. One day, I’m going to be 150 years old (trust me on this one), remembering life before I knew how things turned out. Right now, at 18, everyone else’s lives seem to be working themselves out. They all seem to know where they want to go and how they’re going to get there, but I still have those gifts to unwrap. I might have to wait a little longer for my Christmas Eve, but I get to live in that anticipation and freedom and happiness and childlike hope for just a little bit longer.

So basically, what I’m saying is my life is super un-worked out and it’s unfair and terrible but it’s also super cool and I’m happy about it.

And I’m being as dramatic, excited, and confused as I possibly can about it.