When people hear that I’m an only child, their gut reaction is to think that I’m spoiled. But then, they ask if I get lonely a lot. I can’t say I’m a stranger to loneliness and having no one in the house for most of my childhood certainly didn’t help. But then I realized that loneliness is so hard to define. One day I wrote a short prose essay based on the mood of the song. I didn’t know what to expect from it and just let the melody and lyrics take me to a memory. It was of my parents rushing around the house in a frenzy, getting ready for work and neither of them acknowledged me. When I read this piece to my friends, and asked what was the primary image or emotion being conveyed, they timidly said it was loneliness. Then they said, “But loneliness isn’t an emotion, right?” As I looked back on my essay, I realized from a lackadaisical Atomic Kitten song, I have indeed created a portrait of loneliness. It occurred to me that loneliness is not something you can put your finger on and describe finitely. It is a baby waking up from a nap alone or a little boy having no one to celebrate his birthday with. Loneliness is defined by absence of something that should be there. Sometimes this comes in the form of the lack of someone to share an experience with; sometimes it comes in having too many people around but none who can relate. To me, it is in the lazy Sunday afternoons that I find my cat my only company because my parents have gone to work. I remember sitting in front of the television and watching the sun melt into red, then pink then purple and I kept my eyes on the TV so I don’t have to watch the sunset alone.
My inherent sensitivity to loneliness has convinced me that I will take my life before I turn 40, as most writers do from depression. It is also probably why I still find it painful to eat in public alone. I cannot stand lifting one single finger as a waiter asks “For how many?” as I get a table at a restaurant. And when I see others doing the same, one hand glued to the fork, the other to the iPhone to keep themselves looking busy, I hurt for them (even if they intended to be alone). I just don’t believe anyone ever deserves to eat a meal alone. It’s why the outcast in high school is often painted as the kid eating alone in the cafeteria. It evokes alienation, abandonment, loneliness. Chekhov said a lot of depressing things about life, but this one depressing quote is depressingly true: “The world perishes not from bandits and fires, but from hatred, hostility, and all these petty squabbles.” Communication and reaching out to those around us is one of the most basic human functions, yet we can’t even do this right. No wonder our world is a mess.
For most of my childhood, I knew exactly where I was going. I knew what my parents expected of me and how I was going to make it happen. When I hit junior year of high school, I wasn’t the brightest kid in the class anymore and I was going through a crisis. At the time, my favorite teacher, Ms. Chung, mentored me through life. One day we had to choose classes for the next year, and I was having a hard time deciding on which APs and how many of them to take. When I asked for her advice, she said, “Well, what do YOU want to do.” I stared at her for a bit like she asked a ridiculous question, and realized I didn’t have the answer to it. I knew the more APs I took the better, and I knew which ones would make my resume look good. But I didn’t know which ones I wanted to take.
Years from then, I can’t remember which APs I took but I remember her asking me that question and that was the knowledge I took to college. When my roommate began ranting about a messy situation she was meddled in and I sat quietly listening, the moment she was done, I asked her, “So how do you feel about it?” She looked at me with the same dazed expression I had and then burst out crying. These questions are so simple, so ordinary that we often take them for granted. Sometimes we forget that it’s all it takes to touch someone and show that you care. Loneliness is not something that people can emerge from themselves. By definition, it requires the presence of another. I’ve never felt comfortable telling someone I was lonely, because it would probably end up sounding whiny and contrived. I’ve come to realize that loneliness is not an emotion that can be outwardly expressed, and it often has no signs. And because it is defined by an absence, I just wished more people would be more willing to fill the emptiness with something as simple as a meal or question. Then maybe, just maybe, I’ll live past 40.