I spent much of high school using schoolwork as a distraction from the loneliness, but in the last months of my senior year, it was while writing an essay on Jane Eyre that I realized that loneliness was different from solitude. I could feel myself growing out of the self-absorbed ache of the former toward the generous resilience of the latter.
In college, I had more people in my life and enough homework to never feel lonely for very long, but since I’ve left Calvin’s crowded paths and classrooms, loneliness has returned. In late summer, I ended the relationship that shaped my habits, friendships, and identity for the past four years (and my debut on the post calvin). I accepted an AmeriCorps VISTA position in a quiet office and moved to to an unfamiliar part of Chicago. I didn’t see my few local friends that often and I was too unsure of myself to make new ones. I lost a few pounds and quite a lot of hair.
On my long commute via public transportation, I started to think of myself as inside a bubble, an iridescent film. From inside, I could watch without being seen or heard and contemplate my loneliness in close quarters with more strangers than I could ever know. I stared at a paperclip dangling from the pierced ear of a man with a bleached-blonde afro, read the earnest text messages a pale, middle-aged woman typed out next to me on the bus, eavesdropped on mild flirtation between coworkers.
Being inside a bubble may be tired figurative language. But that’s how I saw it and my lack of imagination made it fairly easy to find a decent stock photo.
A few weeks ago, on a bit of a whim, I picked up Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen. I hadn’t realized that he highlights the same movement from suffocating loneliness to a receptive solitude, which requires us to continually work at our interiority. In turn, we are able to move from hostile isolation to compassionate hospitality and from the illusion of self-sufficiency to prayerful reliance on God.
I’ve been writing in the past tense, but much of this is still the present. I haven’t outgrown my loneliness—in this case, I think the real growth mentality is recognizing that there will times when I am more and less at peace with the bubble—but I do think I’m growing into my own solitude. I have a regular Sunday routine of choir practice, church, and family dinner. I started a new relationship with a friend who still lived in Grand Rapids and we manage to see each other most weekends.
In the next few months, my apartment lease will end, I will move across town, and I’ll start new things. These days of loneliness and solitude as I know them are numbered, but in the meantime, I’ll be venturing inward in the interest of Reaching Out.