Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Elizabeth Armstrong
Hello Loneliness My Old Friend
Hello Loneliness My Old Friend
I am no stranger to loneliness. I have been lonely for as long as I can remember. The sinking feeling of being completely and utterly by myself while everyone around me laughs and talks with their friends and their significant others about sports, school, their lives, their musings—the feeling is far too familiar to me. Though the context and the severity of it has changed many times over recent years, it still has remained a prevalent sensation in my life. I recall the loneliness as I walked into three different schools, two in states on complete opposite ends of the country, not knowing a single person in the state, let alone the school. I recall the loneliness as the people who I thought were my friends left me, one by one, in favor of my ex in the wake of a bad breakup, because they were all his friends anyway and they were only my "friends" because of my status as his girlfriend. I recall the loneliness as I slowly reverted back to sitting by myself at lunch, with only Alec Benjamin in my ear and fictional characters written in an increasingly fictional fantasy AU from a fan's perspective to keep me company. I recall the loneliness as I drown at night, forcing myself to stay awake later, forcing myself to take more comfort in the anguish of the characters of the new hurt/no comfort fic that I'm reading, because I've turned myself into a masochist and the only way that I can bring myself to cope with my own conflicting emotions and feelings and experiences is by projecting the hurt that I'm feeling onto these fictional characters that I for some reason find comfort in and watching them cope with what I can't. I recall the loneliness as I made the same mistake that I had made only a year and a half prior and got myself into another relationship, only to be disappointed and left alone again.
Nick Wignall, a clinical psychologist and author, defines loneliness as "an emotion characterized by the feeling of pain caused by a perceived lack of intimacy with other people or ourselves" (Wignall). He also makes the distinction that loneliness is "an internal emotion rather than an external state of affairs." I believe that this distinction is very important, as it is what sets apart his definition of loneliness and a textbook definition of loneliness such as Merriam-Webster's, for example: "1a. Being without company 1b. Cut off from others" (Merriam-Webster). While yes, loneliness is everything that Merriam-Webster defines it as, it is also much more nuanced than a simple isolation from contact.
Loneliness is eating cereal in bed after a long day at school and watching the latest episode of Spy X Family or Bungou Stray Dogs instead of doing your AP US History homework. It is waiting impatiently backstage for your cue to go on, ignoring how the whispered conversations in the wings are never directed towards you, never begging for your attention. It is asking a question in a group chat and getting no reply, only for someone else to ask another question in the same group chat mere minutes later and get numerous replies almost instantaneously while yours goes unanswered and ignored. It is immersing yourself in a story and obsessing over a side character helping to overthrow governments and slay dragons because you have nothing and no one else to immerse yourself in and with in the real world. It is, in short, "about not feeling connected enough with other people (or ourselves) on an emotional level" (Wignall).
Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby introduces himself to the reader as a very sociable and extroverted party goer. Over the course of the novel's first three chapters, he attends three separate parties: a dinner party at his cousins', the Buchanans, a house party at the residence of Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, and a more formal party at his neighbor's, James Gatsby's, mansion. These parties are all that are discussed in the first three chapters and this fact leaves the reader feeling as if those were all that consumed Nick's time and thoughts during his summer. At the end of the third chapter, however, Nick tells the reader that the parties were not actually all that had his attention, and the few paragraphs that he writes in explanation make it evident to the reader that he may not be as occupied in his time as he seems, and that he may actually be trying to hide his loneliness.
Why do we feel lonely? We've already established that it's a lack of intimate connection with other human beings, but why do we really feel lonely? Mindclear Integrative Psychotherapy suggests a few possible reasons, such as a history of trauma, fears of intimacy/vulnerability, and social networking. A history of trauma has definitely been a source of my own loneliness, and social networking has long since been accredited as one of loneliness' roots. The idea, however, of a fear of intimacy or vulnerability being a potential reason is interesting. Let's break that into two separate ideas of a fear of intimacy and a fear of vulnerability.
On the one hand, a fear of intimacy plays almost exactly into our definition of loneliness, which we said is "an emotion characterized by the feeling of pain caused by a perceived lack of intimacy with other people or ourselves." If we fear intimacy, then we will deprive ourselves of it, and we therefore will perceive a lack of it, which will inevitably lead to said emotion characterized by the feeling of pain caused by a perceived lack of intimacy: loneliness.
On the other hand, however, a fear of vulnerability seems almost counterintuitive, especially when thinking about it through a personal lens. I am being extremely vulnerable in this essay, yet this entire essay is about loneliness, so clearly I am not lacking in vulnerability and its deficit is not a leading cause in mine. Alternatively, if we think about it analytically, taking the text of Gatsby into consideration, a fear of vulnerability seems to be a very reasonable explanation for Nick's loneliness. He spends most of the novel hiding his loneliness, and he never really talks to anyone about his own feelings or opinions. Even in his narration, which is only available to the reader, he is relatively closed off and doesn't offer much insight into his true thoughts. In fact, I would argue that the only moment in which Nick is truly vulnerable to the reader is when he briefly admits his loneliness at the end of chapter three. In this context, it is easy for us to see how a fear of vulnerability could have been a source of Nick's loneliness.
Loneliness isn't a static feeling. It morphs and warps like all human emotions do, and its intensity is different depending on the kind of loneliness one is feeling, too. But the different types of loneliness aren't easy to label, to put a clear cut name on. The loneliness from seeing a happy couple on a Valentine's date and the loneliness from watching your ex laugh and have lunch with someone else are vastly different, so how can I call either or both romantic loneliness? The loneliness from not having a stable childhood friendship and the loneliness from not having anyone to consistently sit and talk with during lunch hit at different levels, so how can I call one or the other platonic loneliness? What do I call this loneliness that I feel when I lie awake in bed at 2AM trying to write this Gatsby essay but I can't because I'm mixing up my Gatsby and my Gogol and I'd rather pay attention to the lyrics of the Mayday song that's playing right now and I know that I missed a social cue when talking to my best friend earlier and I upset them but I don't know how to fix it and no number of "sorry"s will make anything better and I'm sick and recovering from a fever and this nasal congestion is miserable in combination with my existing breathing disorder that makes my chest feel like it's compressing and collapsing and caving in on itself and I can hardly draw in a deep enough breath and—what do I call it if not… loneliness?
In reference to his three aforementioned parties, Nick writes that "they were merely casual events in a crowded summer, and, until much later, they absorbed [him] infinitely less than [his] personal affairs" (Fitzgerald 55-56). This sentence reads as if he is purposefully trying to diminish the weight that those events held as he uses diminutive words like "merely," "casual," and "less" in regards to it, while also using words that hold a metaphorical largeness, such as "crowded," when referring to the overarching time period: his summer. This brings up the question of why Nick would make the subject of the first three chapters the parties he attended, then, if they were not substantial events in his life, particularly in consideration to his "personal affairs," one of which we are only told of in passing in this passage: his affair with a girl in New Jersey. The fact that this affair is only briefly mentioned when Nick tells us that his personal affairs absorbed him far more than the parties allows the reader to infer that he is trying to hide his loneliness and that he is indeed quite lonely, an idea that is further supported by how he later states, "At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes" (Fitzgerald 56). The first three chapters were an effort to make him look not as lonely, only for him to realize later, at the end of chapter three, that he was trying too hard to seem social, so he is now drastically pulling back to balance it out, but that only serves to make him seem too nonchalant and flippant.
I'm torn between saying that I have tried to hide my loneliness and that I haven't, but I think that that's just because, as I've been saying, I've done a bit of both for different kinds of loneliness. I have definitely cried at night while reading a soft fluff fic because I wished that I had a relationship like the one in said fic and I have definitely admitted that to my best friend before, but I have also smiled and said that I was ok when asked by a friend following my second breakup, when I most definitely was not. Recently, I've been trying not to hide my loneliness, as I've found that its concealment is more detrimental to me and my few remaining relationships than admitting and telling people that yes, I am lonely and no, I'm not ok and yes, I do need help ever will be. While lying can sometimes be beneficial, when it comes to your feelings—loneliness especially—the best thing that you can do is be truthful to yourself and admit that you are lonely, and find a way to healthily move past or through that loneliness.
Later on in the novel, Nick tells us that sometimes when he is in the theatre district and seeing the joy and sociality of other people, he "[imagines] that [he], too, [were] hurrying towards gaiety and sharing their intimate excitement" (Fitzgerald 57). Particularly the word "imagining" is evidence for the reader to see how lonely Nick truly is, that he must pretend to be happy and sharing in excitement with other people. The word "sharing" is also evidence of his loneliness, as the fact that he must pretend that he is sharing his "intimate excitement" implies that he is not, and also that he has no one to share it with.
Perhaps, I was once like Nick—alone and trying to pass in a modern society where being a teenager teeming with sociability is expected and the social norm. This, therefore, made me struggle with being truly vulnerable when I needed to. But as evidenced by this essay, I believe I am starting to learn how to be vulnerable. Maybe in embracing my vulnerability, I will find myself growing less lonely.