Loneliness is scary. It creeps up at night in our apartment, at lunch with our peers or on the ride back from your job at a local restaurant. We begin to feel unenthusiastic about our life and the future. The world seems a little bit bigger, a little bit darker. Your phone is right next to you but reaching out to someone seems impossible.
But as scary as it can be, loneliness also has the potential to heal. Amidst feelings of isolation and sadness you get to know yourself better. You appreciate little things, or just different things. There are a million situations that lead to loneliness and each of them comes with its own silver lining.
When I embarked on a three-week hike in Vermont last month I prepared for a lot of things. I prepped for the physical strain, going over the foods that would meet my caloric needs. I readied myself for the mental strain of hiking for three weeks straight. The one thing I didn’t prepare for was the loneliness.
I have never really been someone who gets lonely. I like spending time alone; in fact, I often wondered if I would be happy living alone on top of a mountain when I’m older (I’m now confident in saying that I would not). So the feeling caught me off guard in Vermont’s Green Mountains.
The first week was merely disconcerting, probably because I had my dog with me. After those seven days, though, my family picked up Riley and I set off completely alone. That’s when the isolation started to become insufferable.
The first day without Riley was singular in its loneliness. The next 15-odd days of seclusion stretched before me. All I could see was a monotonous routine of walking, eating and sleeping etched into a background of silence. I desperately wanted company but knew it was for the most part unreachable. I can’t say I’m not ashamed to have shed a few tears that day in the wilderness. Even then, it seemed childish and unreasonable. I can’t remember the last time I cried. But that day I couldn’t stop the tears.
After that first day back on the trail I regained composure. But the loneliness never went away. It was stifling. The drone of my footsteps rang in my ears. I spent my lunch breaks in a sort of searching silence, dumbly looking about while spreading peanut butter on tortillas. Loneliness seemed to steal through the trees, manifesting itself in the distant roar of a road or the creeping shadows that appear so soon during mountain evenings. The feeling would feed back on itself. The plodding isolation lent itself to morbid thoughts like my parents dying or sitting alone in a nursing home in my eighties. Not exactly what I’d imagined thinking about on a stroll through the mountains.
All this stayed with me for the rest of the hike. But, the thing is, it wasn’t always as bad as the first day without Riley. I found that loneliness could sometimes bring a smile. It became wonderfully satisfying to go to sleep in a tent swaddled in isolation, knowing that there was nobody around for miles. It was freeing to stand on a mountaintop alone, looking out on the undulating green and yelling at the sky about whatever pissed me off or made me happy. I found pleasure in the silent routine of walking, eating and sleeping. I usually love meeting people on the trail but half the time I felt an itch to just put my head down and ignore passerby, so comfortable was I in my loneliness. It was rewarding to know I was doing something difficult with absolutely no one watching.
Of course, the loneliness I just described is but one form of the feeling. Physical isolation is probably the most unlikely conduit for loneliness. More common is feeling socially isolated amongst others. I know because I’ve felt that too.
Now more than ever, we feel cut off from friends and family. As college students, we are in a special sort of isolated limbo. At this point in our lives, our permanent home is only truly so on paper. We jump between the life we’ve found at Cornell and the one we left behind at home. Now even that schedule is disrupted. We are physically distanced from our college community and perhaps even our home community. To boot, we’ve been away from our community at home for so long it may feel fragmented and unfamiliar. The future is uncertain and loneliness peers around every turn.
I found unexpected beauty in loneliness. It gave me the cathartic upwelling that allowed me to explore my thoughts more honestly and steady myself. I learned that loneliness is not simply something to fear. For forty days, Jesus strengthened himself in the crucible of loneliness. I propose that all of us alone right now try to do the same. After all, it is inevitable that nearly all of us have felt or will feel alone during this pandemic. Why not make something of it?
Christian Baran is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Honestly runs every other Friday this summer.