I have no one to spend a romantic Valentine’s Day with. However, if you would accept a long Valentine letter from me today, I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on what it’s like to be alone.
I’m generally a lonely person. When people ask me how come I decided to settle down last year, I usually answer that it was because living a nomadic life gets exhausting after some time. Even though that’s not a lie, the actual reason is more intricate. Unless you’ve spent the last third of your life bouncing around, living between different cities in different countries, never long enough to grow roots anywhere, you might not have experienced the feeling of profound isolation that creeps in over time as a consequence of simultaneously being everywhere and nowhere. The simplest way to describe it is if you imagine that you’re a ghost, floating over the globe, phasing in and out of existence; you can be witness to the spectrum of human condition across continents, which is incredibly humbling, but you can only materialize for short amounts of time, briefly touching other people’s lives, before you disperse like mist, only to reappear somewhere else. People might have noticed that you were there, but they learn that they cannot count on you, because what they know as the only constant thing about you is that you will be gone soon.
After a dear friend of mine told me that she generally couldn’t cope without the support of her core circle of friends, I thought about myself and realized I didn’t have such a circle. Sure, I know wonderful humans across the globe, and many of them are always ready to support me in a variety of ways, which I’m eternally grateful for. But most of them don’t even know each other, nor can I invite them all to the same party. And here’s the kicker: even though I have summoned courage to reintegrate with society and settle down in one place, it’s not like I have suddenly learned how to be social again, how to flirt again, nor how to love again. As a result, many of the people who matter a great deal to me might not even know that, because I don’t always know how to nurture those connections, especially over long distances.
I’m a shy and often awkward individual. I have difficulty picking up on subtle social cues, which makes making new friends in different cultures challenging. I have trouble maintaining eye contact, which can make things I say seem disingenuous. I’m also a very keen observer who analyzes everything. While this quality is great for my profession, it’s counter-productive when I start applying it to myself and how I act around people, because it makes me hyper-aware that people perceive me as strange, which results in me becoming even more awkward, and I get caught up in a vicious cycle. Like many other people, I generally try to mask this with cynicism and (sometimes ill-fated) humor.
I constantly meet people who I’m fascinated by, but I do one of the following mistakes: either I get too eager and come on too strong, as if we were friends of a million years (and I sincerely feel this way), or I do the opposite and not reach out at all, so they see me as distant, uninterested, and unapproachable. I also fall in love almost as often; probably at least once a week, sometimes even multiple times in a day. And if your reaction to that is “that’s ridiculous, nobody can fall in love that easily”, my response to that is: yes you can (if you let yourself go), and: it’s possible that your perception of love is limited.
When I’m in love, I don’t drive all night to get to you, I don’t walk 500 miles and then 500 more just to fall down at your door, and I’m usually not in a situation to catch any grenades for you, either. No— when I’m in love, it’s mostly a quiet introspection; an appreciation from afar; a rich inner fantasy; a parallel reality I’ve constructed just so our story can play out. When I’m in love, you mostly won’t ever find about it. This is usually due to a combination of reasons: 1) I feel that the timing or the situation might not be right to act upon this feeling; 2) I would show it if I knew how; 3) Like most breathing things, I’m scared of rejection; 4) Humans often get terrified when they find out you love them, because they are taught that it usually comes with some expectation of reciprocity; 5) I feel like I want to learn how to become a better friend before I dare become a lover to someone, since I have come to believe that the former should be a prerequisite for the latter.
However, I don’t squander my love by sending it into a black hole either, where it will be smothered and never discovered. I let it guide me as I gravitate towards people whom I feel this way about. I have never regretted doing so, because it usually leads to new and unexpected places where I’m bound to learn something new about the world and maybe even about myself.
If this essay sounded like I’m conflating friendship and romantic love in many places, that’s intentional, because I do not believe that it’s productive to insist that these concepts be always separate by a strong, well-defined line. Most of the times, that line is blurred out, and that’s fine; we don’t have to know where the line is because we don’t have to suddenly start acting fundamentally different if we ever cross it.
Ultimately, I’m happy. I think. Yes, there are many days in a week where I feel I don’t want to be alone, and there’s nobody to hang out with. Yes, I’m deprived of intimate touch, which I haven’t had for what now seems like an eternity. But all of that is manageable, because I then do what I do best: I observe and analyze. I hug a pillow as if it were a person. Through a quiet introspection, I try to find where a feeling is coming from, then I follow the trail in that direction and see what I might discover. Most importantly, I give myself time and forgive myself for the tiny blunders that I make. If I profoundly betrayed someone, it would be very hard for me to forgive myself, but being alone means that my decisions are usually not hurting anyone else. When I put things into perspective, my moments of being awkward or confused in a social situation or a grocery store are suddenly not such large transgressions as I previously imagined them to be, and I’m slowly learning to not treat them as catastrophic events anymore. Instead, I try to chuckle at myself, give myself a friendly pat on the back and say: “Don’t worry! It might seem hard right now, but one of these days you’ll get it.”
Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.