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.

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