I am fascinated by our variable tolerances; when it comes to solitude, silence, loneliness, or discomfort, we react violently and immediately. When it comes to monotony insidiously creeping in, we are like the frog in a slowly boiling pot of water. Maybe we start to notice it heating up, but it feels just good enough until it is far too late.
Many people say that constantly moving around sounds lonely. They imply that being alone is an objectively negative thing. They urge me to “settle down” and “get involved” and “reach out,” as if a formulaic approach to human contact will solve the loneliness and longing that haunts every human heart. But I feel far lonelier in a room full of people who do not truly know me than I ever do when I’m alone in the woods. And I feel far less understood when I feel I must bite my tongue to participate than I do when I hide silently in the bushes, using the entirety of my being to focus on a migrating bull elk that is slowly crossing the valley ahead of me. I think my contentedness in the face of solitude threatens others’ ability to ignore it.
I feel so grateful for the time I’ve spent alone the last few years, the time I’ve spent not filling my days with occupation and striving but instead with conscious, self-reflective thought on the gnawing impulses of the human soul. I am glad that I have spent time not keeping up with the Jones, but rather rejecting their advances wholesale; it has taught me how much of our perceived worth is tied up in our net worth, how much of our inability to cope with reality is influenced by our collective delusion about the nature of reality. How eligible a bachelor would I be if I only modeled myself after the in-demand totems of our time, if I said the right things instead of the honest things, if I sought to make my pile bigger even if it makes my soul smaller. If I would get a haircut and shave my beard and use my dog as a pickup line and go to bars on the weekends. How much community would I have if I only stayed put and “got involved,” as if involvement and nervously filling time and space is a guarantee of the good life.
I’ve faced the crippling feeling of aimlessness and underutilization head-on lately; I moved to a new town with virtually no pre-existing connections and no clear career cause or personal path forward. I’ve spent every weekend night for weeks on end with no plans and an overfilled refrigerator, scraping together elaborate recipes for one, which taste poignant in light of the effort required to make them and bland in the silence in which they’re consumed. It is strange to think about the potential for raucous conversation and unpredictable excitement that could unfold where I only elsewhere, or were I only less myself. There are people I miss dearly scattered across the map and there are jam-packed bars mere blocks away, but I am not near them and I do not belong in those places.
It is also a blessing to have spent so much of my adult life thinking critically about the nature of life and the funnel we are all forced through. Had I not been hit by a car, I might well have gone through with my intention to buy a house in Austin. I might have stayed at my job I didn’t like but paid well, I may have married too soon, I would have stayed fixed in the philosophical outlook and anemic community I was a part of at age twenty-four and never grown, never sought, never seen clearly before it was too late. Once you pile on the comforts and trappings of American success, it is rather difficult to keep evolving. And once you strip them all away and spend the entirety of every day contemplating the things that puzzle you in great detail, the world becomes a lot less fearsome. A terrific analogy I heard lately is the idea of being so busy with work and a nagging boss, fleeting hours to go to the gym, buy groceries, and do laundry before you collapse into bed before doing it all again. And as you lay down and drift cross-eyed towards sleep while scrolling through Instagram, you might notice how much your shoulder hurts. And it probably hurt all day, but so long as you were otherwise occupied, there was no time to notice it. And by the time you notice it, you’ve already got a full schedule for at least another week (or three).
What if we sit with our sore shoulders and yank our painful splinters and wounded hearts out and hold them before us and examine them from every angle? What if we think about where and why it hurts, what we are masters of and what are the masters of us? Why can you meet some people and form an instant and life-altering connection with them and why do others stand you up for casual plans when you have no intentions but sincere interest in their lives?
As objectively awful as the last few weeks have been, they’ve photographed well. Ample time to hike and bike across the Ozarks has let Hank and I observe hoar frost and migrating elk and stunning vistas normally obscured by foliage. And what does this dichotomy say about the difference between joy and distraction? Participating in the world is a formulaic thing; living a fully-actualized life does not involve a checklist or predictable routine with predictable outcomes. But it may involve good photography, inasmuch as the act is satisfying and the subjects are edifying whether the images are shared or not.
It is hard to say what has been the most demoralizing aspect of this month—the purchase of large and expensive furniture, the sinking realization that “cheap for what it is” rent is still a large and recurring expense for a house that I don’t really need in a town where I have no people to host, the suffocating feeling of committing to something that doesn’t have the shimmering promise of a budding human relationship, the humbling admission that believing in something on principle is different than benefitting from it in practice—but I am grateful for all of these truths nonetheless.
Without them, we would have nothing more than another pleasant mimesis of success without substance. Without them, I would not write things that lead to me getting at least a couple of emails, texts, and phone calls per week from readers who end up friends, who want to talk to someone else who has thought surely it’s ok to not be satisfied with the status quo, who have wondered if all they have to look forward to is what everyone has told them they should look forward to.
It is also true that we are usually loneliest when people tell us we should be lonely; when they wonder at those poor souls who drink a beer alone in the corner on a Thursday night, just to pass the time, when they ask in a declarative way how lonely it must have been to be on the road for a year. Loneliness does not often strike me until I am sitting still, until I am not living my own life but the life someone suggested I live. Once I start living that life, I realize that I cannot do it as well as the person who was truly made for it, and so I feel impotence and loneliness come creeping in around the edges of the unopened box containing the walnut wood dining chair I’ve yet to assemble. Because all of this matching décor and smart style is not for me, it is for the guests who have yet to materialize. It is for the dinner parties that I will not host. It threatens to grow roots and tendrils and cling as fiercely to my surroundings as kudzu vine, as if every picture hanger tacked into the patchwork walls is as fatal a blow as a wooden stake through the heart of a vampire. To decorate a rented home is to surrender to a tenuous permanence that I never meant to participate in.
There is an economic argument for buying nice things which will not need to be disposed and replaced next move or the move after that. It is better to spend a little more and not need to spend again, I believe, but it also means that the things begin to own me. I feel a silent, claustrophobic panic as I turn the final screw in my mid-century-modern desk and note the still-packed boxes beside it. It is as if I am no longer free to up and leave, to run screaming out of the room once I realize that nobody there is listening to anything I have to say and nobody there is going to challenge my best or my worst ideas with any alacrity.
It is astoundingly hard to fight for independence. At a certain point, we are doomed to feel pressure, from nature or from nurture, to temper our arguments so that we can find a partner in crime, a partner in business, a collective of people who can tolerate ourselves and each other, an arrangement which satisfies our primal tribe mentality. Revolutionaries almost always die alone. It is only decades later that they are read and rediscovered, the miserable particulars of their biographies glossed over or used as a supporting argument that they were right all along.
I can speak from experience that I do not feel lonely when I am sleeping beneath the stars or drinking beer alone in dive bars with the sense that tomorrow I’ll be somewhere new. I do not usually notice that I haven’t had a romantic moment in so long many countries would consider it corporeal punishment until I spend consecutive days in a place with no promise of change on the horizon, until I notice the world around me pushing everyone through a narrowing funnel at an accelerating rate and I wonder if my fragile being will survive the immense pressure. When you fall in love with someone’s one-hour first impression and leave before they ever get a chance to stand you up or disappoint you, it is possible to remain a romantic.
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Situational irony relies on the reader knowing two sets of facts that the participants in the plot are not privy to. So here, dear reader, let me make you privy to both sides of the story so the irony may perhaps come into sharp focus for you.
Over the last month or so, as I have plummeted into the darkest and most stagnant routine that I have seen since traumatic brain injury and chemical imbalance and hopeless loss of momentum all conspired in a perfect storm, I have also received the largest volume of emails and phone calls that I ever have from readers who appreciated my words or even sought advice of some kind. It has been retirees who learned something new about themselves from my unfiltered melodrama or who wanted to speak, by way of regretful hindsight, some encouragement to me to not give up. And it has been young kids, either finishing or starting college, who came across my self-indulgent journeys while researching their own forays into self-discovery and fossil fuel consumption, who wanted my opinion or advice on their own unique situations, who wanted to hear the actual voice behind the words on the computer screen, to verify that at least one person on this planet thought it was ok for them to do something other than ride the internships and Greek formals into employment and wedding season and retirement and death.
I have spent several hours lately writing emails and talking on the telephone to people who actually read my words and acted on them. I have played the part of someone with wisdom, advice, gratitude, and principle, right up until I hit send or hang up the phone. Then the freefall resumes, and the situational irony becomes so obvious as to be tasteless. How long can one portend to be living intentionally whilst swinging wildly between spending days in the woods and days in a disheveled home, not writing the book they said they were moving here to write? How much good art must come out of temporal misery before it is “worth it”?
I have tried to be gracious in receiving the encouragement and generous in offering my time and my perspective. It would be nice to be paid for my original thought, but it is far nicer to be trusted and contacted because of it. Any one of these conversations is just about enough reward to keep me writing and sharing indefinitely; that is, until the darkness creeps in and blindsides me and I nihilistically play guitar until two in the morning and wake up at ten ‘til eight just so I can feel a different type of headache than the one which usually plagues me.
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But there is something good about all of this, too. It is a triumph to experience discomfort and disappointment because you know yourself and your expectations. It is rewarding to share your hard-won opinions and candid, underwhelmed thoughts with attentive ears before they must endure the same gauntlet that you had to. And it is even poetically pleasing to dwell on how fickle the world is, how much of love is unrequited, how good music sounds when you are immersed in feeling and starved for attention. A sardonic laugh at how close you once were to normalcy and how far you are now is always cathartic, and oftentimes we can literally only learn from our mistakes (or else from someone else who makes mistakes and writes about them).
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Yesterday, this all reached a fever pitch. I was hit by as inescapable an agony as I have been since I was far nearer to the consecutive head injuries which rendered me a true wreck. As much as I wanted to do something to triumph over it, or at least something menial and practical, I simply could not. I was consumed by mental dysfunction and my soul was overridden by my anatomy. A shittier feeling, I cannot fathom. Tangible discomfort meets existential reduction. And as I finally got out to take Hank for a meandering walk around the neighborhood, I could not help but wonder at it all. Could I blame the injury brought on by two tons of glass and steel some eighteen months ago, or was this agony all my own, the product of injury brought on by the sands of time and the decisions I’ve made along the way?