On the eve of her graduation from Yale in 2012, Marina Keegan wrote an essay that, within about a week, would be read by well over a million people from 98 nations. It was called "The Opposite of Loneliness."
But what is the opposite of loneliness? Keegan opened her essay by noting that we don't have a word for it, but whatever it is, she found it at Yale:
"It is not quite love and it's not quite community; it's just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it's four A.M. and no one goes to bed…
"Yale is full of tiny circles we pull around ourselves. A cappella groups, sports teams, houses, societies, clubs. These tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights…"
That essay opens a collection of Keegan's writings published under the same title, "The Opposite of Loneliness." (Here is my review of it.) The question it poses, what is the opposite of loneliness, still resonates. I think people who are single at heart might answer that question in a way that would seem counterintuitive to others.
The single at heart are people who live their best, most meaningful, and most authentic lives as single people. I'm one of them. I rarely feel lonely, and when I do, it is usually when I'm with other people. One time, when I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was walking the downtown mall with a friend I always loved talking to – she's smart, wryly funny, and great at getting to matters of depth. We happened upon a big table of colleagues who were laughing and talking. She wanted to join them. I sat for a while, but their conversation was so superficial and so inane, it made me feel lonely. I made an excuse and left.
Another time, two couples wanted to treat me for my birthday. I looked forward to it. But they spent the night talking about babies and daycare. The whole night. (I have no kids.) That, rather spending my birthday home alone, is the definition of loneliness.
I like the examples Keegan gives of the opposite of loneliness. But I'd add to them the experiences of being all by yourself and feeling so engaged in whatever you are doing that you don't even notice how much time has passed or that you're actually pretty tired. (I think that is an example of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow.") The opposite of loneliness is realizing the answer to what you were puzzling over when you weren't trying to figure it out – during a long walk, for instance, or in the shower or just as you are falling asleep or waking up. The opposite of loneliness is feeling grateful for all of the people in your life you cherish, even (especially?) when you don't see them all the time.
The opposite of loneliness is JOMO – the Joy of Missing Out. For me, that's when I'm delighted not to feel obligated to participate in social events that don't interest me. I stay home and revel in my solitude or pursue the social engagements that really do engage me.
Alone is not lonely. Alone is a neutral description of a state that can be experienced any number of ways. Loneliness is, by definition, painful. The opposite of loneliness is contentment or joy. It is living your most meaningful life, the life you want to live rather than the life you think you should be living. For me, the opposite of loneliness is living single.
Facebook image: mavo/Shutterstock