Living with Loneliness: The Hidden Virtue of Sadness

Here I am, sitting alone in another coffee shop. Well, I’m not really alone, of course. The shop is bustling with excitement and activity. Well-dressed strangers frantically click and type on their keyboards. Tattooed punks in their striped V-necks and faded pink shorts are similarly absorbed in their screens. To my right, a friendly conversation about the uncertain future sustains for hours. To my left, a silent student scribbles on scattered pages, just as I scribble in this journal. The punks quietly chuckle at whatever is feeding through their headphones, most likely one of those silly YouTube videos or offbeat podcasts like the ones I enjoy so much. People come and go, all in search of a quick caffeine fix.

Although all of this life surrounds me, I still feel profoundly alone.

Moving to a new city is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. As I wrote in my last blog post, moving away from Boone was incredibly bittersweet. I’ve moved in the past, but the trauma of being separated from the beautiful and comfortable place that I called home is subtle, yet profound. As we grow up and wander into the wider world, we inevitably run into this sinking feeling. We attempt to cope with this ever-gnawing trauma, longing for something that can never truly be recovered, by either holding onto nostalgia or attempting to build a new home.

For example, I often find myself reminiscing to the days where I could drive to the parkway to gaze at the innumerable stars breaking through the darkened abyss. Where I could breathe in the fresh mountain air. The light breaking through the canopy of pines were my softened stained-glass. Honeysuckle blossoms were my sweetened incense, and blackberries my sole sustenance. The river was my baptismal pool, soothing and healing the worst of afflictions. I look back to the late nights laughing, crying, and venting with friends who hold the closest places in my heart, and part of me wishes that I could just go back. But nostalgia has a way of glamorizing the past, making it seem more enchanting and alluring than it really was. So, instead of looking to the past, I’ve been trying to build the foundation for this new home.

Yet, if we’re honest, vying for adoption into this new home is difficult. One of the first (and most difficult) steps we are faced with is when we are forced to come to grips with our inherent homelessness.  We come to recognize that we are strangers in a strange land; no one around us truly knows us as we so desperately desire to be known. We reach out to our friends and family, calling, messaging, and texting them incessantly as we desperately crave connection. But then, slowly but surely, those texts start to dwindle. Those long conversations on the phone become replaced by the routine. The excitement and wonder that first accompanied your move start to lose their luster. The likes on Facebook and retweets regarding your new home steadily decrease, and you are now left to the reality of this new realm that you inhabit. The loneliness becomes palpable, and at least for a while, you start to question the whole thing.

Is this really what’s best?

What am I doing here?

Will it always be this way?

The answer is obvious, but the obvious is often obscured by the overwhelming imposition of the present moment. I know that I’m not alone, really. I already have a small connection of friends, most of whom I just barely know. I cannot express how excited I am to get to know these new friends, and I do not take their hospitality and kindness lightly. But right now, they don’t really know me. And I don’t really know them. To the vast population that surrounds me, I am just another stranger, going about his daily routine. This sudden shift, from knowing everyone in town to knowing very few people, is jarring and incredibly isolating.

The impatience in me just wants to skip this period of waiting, these moments of feeling completely alone.

The depression in me wants to dwell in the sadness forever, eating pasta, salted caramel gelato, and Nutella in my hoodie and sweatpants while listening to The Black Parade, Carrie & Lowell, and Tenboom on repeat.

The anxiety in me wants to keep tweeting witty observations, awkward moments, and brutal honesty about my fears in hope that each like and retweet will somehow prove to myself and others that I’m not actually sad and lonely.

Like I said before, I have an amazing group of friends already, which is incredibly exciting and deeply humbling. Their openness, love, and acceptance are completely overwhelming, and I don’t want to take their kindness for granted. But that’s one of the hidden demons of depression: no matter how many people you have around you, the darkness insists on snuffing out the light that these people inherently bring. But their light is stronger.

I was reminded of this reality when a friend from England, whom I hadn’t seen in years, reached out to me. One Sunday evening, sitting on a bench across from Frog Pond on the Common, we talked on the phone for nearly an hour. His booming, deep, and gentle voice brought gladness to my heart. We discussed how our lives were going, the ways that God often acts as a gangster, and how we could pray for one another. Then, out of nowhere, he said something that stuck with me.

“I want you to know how incredibly proud I am of you."

"And I also want you to know that if you’re ever feeling lonely, if you ever come face to face with those feelings amidst the darkness of the night, do not hesitate to call me. I’m here for you.”

Right there, in the middle of Boston Common, I started to cry. I hadn’t even mentioned my own feelings of loneliness, yet he spoke so deeply into my soul. The fine light of companionship and loves pierces through the dark shroud that softly drapes over my thoughts. I’m so incredibly blessed to have such an amazing group of friends and family who love and support me from thousands of miles away. But what do I do when they’re not here? How do I react to sadness in this temporary time of homelessness? I’ve found that by pressing into this sadness, by refusing to run from it or find comfort in a false remedy, depression has no grip over me.

That’s the counterintuitive instinct that we must adopt. When I’m depressed and lonely, it’s easy for me to run from sadness. I’ll watch YouTube videos, lose myself in books, and busy myself with writing music. I’ll even venture out of my apartment, in an effort to shake off the cabin fever that I so quickly catch. However, it’s during those dark and silent nights, those nights that never seem to be graced with the blessedness of rest, when I come face to face with how I truly feel. But instead of running from the sadness that we feel, what would happen if we learned to embrace it?

Many of us refuse to allow ourselves to feel sadness. We are told that we are allowed to grieve and have sorrow, but only for a short time. Any more than that, and it becomes as a disease. By stifling our outlet for sadness, however, we only exacerbate our feelings of loneliness and isolation. Paradoxically, the antidote for depression is sadness. To be heartbroken isn’t a diagnosis; it’s a skill. Like a seed in the ground, we must cultivate our own grief and heartbrokenness in order for resurrection to occur. Instead of fighting and distancing ourselves from our sadness, we must come to a place where it earns its keep alongside the rest of our lives.

Sadness is something that our soul needs. Loneliness exposes those places in our hearts that we are often afraid of. That’s why most of us are afraid of silence. We are afraid of being alone with ourselves. Instead of merely being a way to find peace, maybe the ability to meditate and be content in silence is a sign that we’ve already found it. By embracing our own sadness and loneliness, we come to own it, rather than letting it own us. By confessing our own feelings of isolation, we can start to be bonded together through our shared brokenness. After dying to our own pride, we can start to lead lives of Resurrection.

Is it messy? Yes.

Does it look pretty? No, but Resurrection is about making things new, not making them pretty.

Does it offer hope? With all I am, I hope so.

So I walk out of this coffee shop. The sun is just over the horizon on this cloudy dusk. Some people are heading home for the night, while others are claiming the bench as their temporary bed. A soft, cool breeze blows off of the water from the east. I close my eyes.

Breathing in.

Breathing out.

I recognize the feeling of sadness.

I turn it slowly, examining its distinct edges and gentle folds.

I allow it to stay, as an old friend.

And I go about my merry way.

Here’s to the future.

I can’t wait to see you.