It may seem like a strange and unlikely paradox that in today’s world which is brimming with social media and connectivity that anyone could be lonely. As it is right now, I have several different ways of communicating with the same people on the same device. But not only is it possible, it happens; it happens more often than we expect; more often than we would like to admit; even to ourselves. This is where this story comes in. The main character was not given a name, because she can be anybody.
Every lunch hour was the same: she would pick up her cell, retrieve her handbag from the bottom drawer where it was stowed and slowly stroll out of her office with her head down, eyes averted and shoulders slouched. Her activities seldom varied: her hour was spent eating lunch and writing in her journal. The only difference was the location: on days when she brought her lunch from home she would find a free bench under a shady tree in the park nearby; otherwise she would sit alone in one of the nearby restaurants or cafes.
On this particular day we take our first peek into her life. On this day she has opted for lunch at a small Chinese restaurant, selected not only for its menu but also for its relative unpopularity – it is one of the quieter eating places. She pats the back pocket of her capacious handbag (which is more functional than stylish) to reassure herself that her journal is there and surreptiously observes her fellow patrons as she waits to collect her order.
She feels relieved when she collects her lunch. This relief stems not only from the fact that she is hungry, but also this meal gives her something to do, other than stand around alone hearing the chit chat of others around her, which serves as reminder that she has no one to engage in casual conversation with. Her relief grows when she gets her favourite table, which is in a corner of the restaurant furthest from the door, where she can eat and write unobserved.
She eats quickly so that she can get to writing in her journal. She occasionally checks her phone: there are no messages. There are only work-related emails and the notifications from social networking sites all involve other peoples’ posts and not her own. She sighs and proceeds to write in her journal. Today’s entry goes like this:
Here’s another dull day, full of doing the same things in the same way. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother. I’ve done all the things I should: studied hard and got an education, found a job and made myself independent. I’m on every popular social networking site and use every popular communication app and yet here I am, again, sitting alone having lunch. I think using these things just serve to remind me that I have no friends and I don’t mean anything to anyone.
It makes no difference where I have lunch; if I were at work I’d be alone in my cubicle because sitting in the lunchroom makes no difference – I can’t join their conversations – and out here I’m still alone. I don’t even understand how this has happened; I thought I was a fun, kind person, but the few friends I have are either busy or far away and somehow when I meet new people I don’t leave enough of an impression for them to consider me as anything more than a passing acquaintance.
After work today I’m going to run errands and go home. Gone are the days when I would try to call a friend to meet or even just chit chat over the phone; if I don’t call them they don’t talk to me. It’s like I’m invisible. Sometimes I wonder: if I fell off this planet, would any one notice? Of course my boss would notice because my work wouldn’t get done, but there will always be someone who can take my place. I mean would anyone really care? Would my absence sadden anyone? I doubt it…”
Her journal writing is interrupted when a co-worker came up to her table and pulls a chair to sit. She feels slightly excited that she would have some company for this lunch hour, so she tries to appear bright and friendly. The conversation that follows goes like this:
“Hey, how are you?” says the co-worker.
“I’m good thanks, how…?” her lie is cut short by her anxious colleague.
“I’m good. Listen I’m having some trouble with this project and I was wondering if you could…” her colleague continues breathlessly.
“Of course, I wouldn’t mind…” she replies although internally her thoughts are “I knew it. Nobody is interested in how I am. She only came to speak to me because she wants my help with something. I’ll help of course but I don’t know why I was happy that she came over here. It’s always the same, people only pretend to care about you when they want something.” Throughout the conversation she pretends a cheerfulness she does not feel to the best of her ability and eventually agrees on a time to meet her colleague to help her.
By the end of the conversation her lunch hour is over so she simply closes and packs away her journal, throws away her empty container and returns to work. She struggles with her tasks for the rest of the afternoon; it feels like a dark cloud has descended into her mind and she is weighed down by her thoughts. She feels unappreciated, invisible and unimportant. At last 4:00 pm comes and she heaves a sigh of relief, packs her things and leaves.
On her way home her phone rings and she answers it with little energy, expecting it to be something work-related or someone asking her for a favour of some sort. She is pleasantly surprised to hear her best friend’s voice on the other end of the call, but not for long, as she suspects that the reason for this call is to ask a favour.
“Hey girl, I know I’ve been super busy, but my meeting tonight was cancelled and I thought of you, would you like to come over and just chill for a while?” her friend asks.
“I wonder what she wants. She probably couldn’t find anyone else who is free tonight.” She thought, but her reply is “Umm I don’t know, I have some stuff to do…”
“Aw come on, I’ve got ice-cream. This would be a good chance to catch up.”
“Well ok then, I’ll come.” She ends the call.
She arrives at her friend’s apartment determined to put on her best cheerful act. She is a little jealous of her friend who is very popular and has an active social life. Her social media pages are always covered with greetings and pictures from events and she has several circles of friends she spends time with.
Her friend sits her down with a bowl of ice cream on the couch and begins the conversation by asking how she is. Naturally she brushes off the question by saying she is good and tries to divert her friend’s attention by asking her about the latest events she has attended. As the evening progresses, she toys with the idea of honestly confiding in her friend the loneliness she feels, but she decides not to; such a popular person wouldn’t understand.
Her friend then shocks her with this statement:
“You know, I am so glad you came this evening. Sometimes I just feel so lonely here by myself. That’s probably why I don’t like being home.”
“What? You? Lonely? How is that even possible! I’m the one who’s lonely…weeks go by without me hearing from any of you, my phone hardly ever rings…” her voice cracks and she gets silent. Her friend looks at her in shock.
“I didn’t even know you felt that way. I’m sorry, so sorry.”
As the evening progresses she confides everything to her friend and cries bitterly. It feels unbelievably good to finally tell someone what she has been going through and it feels even better to find out that she isn’t the only person who feels this way. Her friend extracts a promise that she will honestly tell her how she feels and they both make plans to meet each other more often.
When she gets home she pulls out her journal and reads it over. She then decides, on her friend’s advice, to come up with some ideas on how to help herself feel less lonely. She starts by remembering people she has met that she has common interests with and decides to reach out to the ones she spoke to the most. She also starts looking for clubs and groups that are into her interests so that she can join them, with the hopes that she can meet more like-minded people.
The next day at work, her lunch hour approaches and she decides to eat in the company lunch room instead of at her cubicle. She takes a deep breath as she enters the room and greets everyone. She notices an empty seat in the group that is cheerfully laughing and talking and asks if it is free. Then she makes a conscious effort to overcome her natural shyness and participate in the conversation. She is agreeably surprised to see that her input is welcome and eventually when the group goes for lunch they start inviting her as well.
As time goes by, her efforts pay off. She no longer looks at the ground when she walks and she is not silent in conversations. She still writes in her journal, but she also has people to talk to when she feels sad. She notices that as she opens herself up and shows her personality more and more, she feels less sad and lonely.
Loneliness has a tendency to make you want to lock yourself up inside yourself. You hide yourself as much as possible, and even worse, you hide your true feelings from even those who care about you. Sometimes the cure begins when you get yourself out of yourself; sometimes all it takes is you telling someone that you feel lonely for them to tell you they do too and a bond is built from the shared emotion.
Alana Seepersad is an avid reader and collector of novels, especially the classics, who was temporarily distracted from her love of the written word by her interest in science. After noticing her own ability to turn even the most mundane event into a story, she is now inspired to use her love of language and her own observations of life to reach out to other people. She hopes to make life more enjoyable for them, as her favourite books have done for her.