The Unpredictably Predictable Loneliness of Adulthood
As children, it seemed that virtually everything we did was with a sense of being together. With whom, it didn’t always matter—we were with parents, siblings, extended family, many of whom fawned over our existence, though others may have begrudged having to share a couch cushion during movie time. We were with friends, whose shoes filled with sandbox dust right beside ours, or with teachers, who made sure we ate enough, had crayon-in-fist drawings to stick to the refrigerator door, were picked up by someone who loved us before the sun went down (though they were never paid enough to do all of that). Even at high school graduation, we sung songs of togetherness and shared successes as joyously-flung caps tumbled back to our waiting hands.
This was, of course, if we were fortunate.
Today, as humans considered fully-grown despite all of the opportunities for growth that lie ahead, I hardly need to point out that things are different. It goes without saying that we do many things alone, with little encouragement or prodding from others. We find ourselves confused in convoluted grocery store aisles alone, sift through junk mail alone, commute to work alone. (If we don’t commute to work at all, we often work alone.)
For some of us, this was once a goal we consciously strove for. Some of us chased the privilege of solitude, while for others their newfound loneliness is byproduct of other realized dreams. Detachment from most others is a catalyst for growth, or maybe the reward for it. And as young birds we flew the nest with little thought to all the other critters we were leaving behind.
We’re quick, I think, to blame the pandemic for this particular form of grief. Rightly so: for a long time—and for many, even now—it was both recommended and imperative that people isolate themselves. Walls, both physical and social, became medical devices. But I know that if the illness we currently know best were to disappear today, we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves. How do you make friends as an adult, when you don’t have the crutch of school to lean on? How do you tell a new acquaintance (if you’re lucky enough to have one) that you find them interesting and funny enough to spend recreational time with, one-on-one, with the hope of blossoming that tiny sprout of a connection into companionship?
Regardless of how busy my schedule is, I find myself hoping the barista makes conversation while I pay for my favorite latte. I cross my fingers that, instead of me Facetiming a loved one, they’re the one to initiate that call. Yes, I miss the ease with which social groups formed when it was more acceptable to throw parties and double-dip into layered bean dips; more than that, my heart squeezes for when my longest-lasting friendships felt sturdier, more likely to flourish than to fade.
Worse is the realization that this is how we’re socialized to be. In many countries, your youth is your biggest chance to live with or depend on others, after which it’s a sign of success to live alone. Friends who get married transfer most of their time and attention to their home lives, despite little materially changing. This is exacerbated if or when they have children. Family grows accustomed to your groceries’ absence from the fridge and so goes your time laughing together. From the people you were once close to you may get a text here and there, the occasional invitation to brunch, and you tell yourself you should be grateful to receive anything at all.
As apt as I am to worry that I’m the odd one out, that I’m disproportionately lacking in the social skills department or that I must be alone in my loneliness, I know I’m not the first to write about how strange and sad adulthood can be. Others have equally complained about the complex and unpredictable nature of loneliness in adulthood. I’ve heard older adults say you’re lucky if you end up attending a happy hour with a friend a couple times each month. Put even more hopelessly, some say a friend’s walk down the aisle is equivalent to a walk out of your life.
But I’m stubborn, and I refuse to imagine a future ahead in which we don’t break bread frequently. I know that somewhere out there is the chance that we’ll swap extra lemons from our tree with the neighbor whose tomato vine bursts in the summer. I know it’s possible for us to lean on each other, share our fears and wildest dreams with open hearts.
I’ve seen strangers pray with strangers on the street, and they provide me with a template for tomorrow.