Everything is Temporary: An Interview on Making Sanctuary Out of Loneliness
Two women open up about their experiences with loneliness, coping, and finding home.
What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured- Kurt Vonnegut
Lauren: Where do you feel loneliness comes from?
Zoe Njemanze: ‘Negative loneliness’ I think comes from not belonging to a group. In a sense I kind of feel alone here at UT because there is such a low demographic of blacks. I think when you have that disconnect from some group or some larger population that’s where loneliness stems from. Loneliness stems from wanting to be a part of something that you aren’t a part of- there’s a disconnect there.
What do you do when you feel “Negative Loneliness”?
So, if you are alone and you are feeling disconnected I think the best thing for one to do is to go talk to people and get out there, despite there being loneliness. Loneliness has a very cyclical way of making one depressed, and so you become lonely first then you distance yourself more, and so then you isolate yourself. It’s kind of like self-sabotage in a way. So, seeking out people who are like-minded and like you it’s kind of like an uphill battle- you got to put a little energy into it.
Do you feel the topic of loneliness is taboo?
Especially in this day and age the idea of loneliness is becoming more taboo- like people don’t want to talk about how lonely they are when they are extremely lonely. We take pictures of ourselves by ourselves and that’s acceptable, but it’s honestly kind of weird. You got a coffee but you’re not enjoying time with other human beings, but it’s socially acceptable for you to post selfies. We are becoming more comfortable with seeing ourselves alone, but we don’t ever actually want to be alone. It’s socially constructed that it is weird to go to the movies by yourself, but it’s really not that weird.
Is there a connection for you in being seen and understood and feeling lonely?
Yeah yeah, I think there definitely is a connection. Like loneliness is that disconnect like you want to be seen or heard, but you’re not- so if other people acknowledge me and understand my feelings and my very being then I feel like my loneliness is demolished in a way. We are so self-absorbed in technology that we don’t want to be isolated- we don’t want to be alone, but in a way technology is driving us farther apart. When you are alone on a bench in order to not be awkward or show you are not alone, you pull out your phone. To show that “I’m doing something” or “I’ve got something going on in my life” which is a really weird trend we are on. We are actually losing our ability to connected with each other, and I’m sure many other people understand these feelings because we are not relating the way we would without cellphones. Nobody wants to show that they are lonely. Everyone wants to show that “my phone is blowing up” or “I have this and this party to go to”, nobody wants to say “oh I am sitting at home alone”.
Do you feel loneliness means there is a lack of human connection?
June Chee: I think it’s a two-way path, like part of it depends on you, and your ability to fully self-express and like your ability to communicate your own sensations or having the vocabulary to do so, and I think a lot of people are lonely because they don’t know how to do that. Or they don’t want to. It’s just fear. Fear is just all fake. Like every single fear I’ve had in the past two years has been something that I’ve gotten over. Because I realized that once you vocalize your fear, it’s small and it’s bounded. Because like if you are able to say it out loud then it’s something that you can work against. Even for things that are actually scary, like that doesn’t invalidate the fact that people will feel fear about certain things, so for example, if I said, “I was afraid of public speaking” or “I was afraid of being alone” that fear is not actually me afraid of me being alone, it’s me afraid to face whatever it is that’s making me afraid of being alone.
How do you cope with feelings of fear?
Oh my god, so much writing. I have done so much writing. I highly recommend reading too. I think for me it’s also been just asking a lot of questions. Like every time I have a thought, I ask why? Why am I having this thought? Why am I experiencing this? Or is this something I can draw from a past memory?
Would you say practicing mindful thinking is a good way to combat loneliness?
Yes, mindful thinking is a huge, huge way. I think there are moments when I feel lonely and it’s due to me thinking “I’m the only person in the world who’s ever experienced this”, and that’s also another thing that I constructed. Even if it is something that I only have experienced in this specific situation and this specific moment in time, it’s not like nobody else has ever experienced it. And it’s good that other people have experienced the same thing in a slightly different way, just because it gives me perspective.
Do you feel loneliness is taboo for people to talk about?
I don’t really know if it’s an idea of people not wanting to talk about it, but I think it’s definitely a feeling of people not understanding how to talk about it. Because I definitely experienced that too, when I moved away from home, I was just like “nobody fucking told me that I was going to go into my childhood bedroom and like want to pull my hair out because it feels weird and different”. I’m from Houston, so the first couple of times I went back after I moved here, I was like “wow this city is like growing up, and I’m not going to be able to see it, and it’s moving on without me, an I’m just going to die and nobody is going to remember me” and like all this stuff, and that’s an interesting thing because I think as we grow older we learn to create home. We learn to like create home in people. Like I feel like that’s one of the things that we are forced to learn that nobody really talks about. Like when you move, and when you are young, you create friends by proximity it’s just like the people you spend all your time with. But, growing up you have to be very intentional or be very resolute in your intentions to be social or have friends like maybe that’s another thing that loneliness is something that isn’t necessarily taboo, but coping mechanisms have to be learned and like nobody really has the vocabulary to discuss learning about it or teaching it or like explaining it to other people.
Do you feel the nostalgia and longing for home has dissipated as you’ve found people here?
Yeah, it’s definitely dissipated but I totally understand what you are talking about when you say sad nostalgia. I think I romanticized my high school career a lot. I’m just like “you didn’t even know how lucky you were” but I bet like if I was 16 again I would still be like a brat. It wasn’t fun then but it’s really easy to romanticize anything or like anytime that is not like the present. But, I definitely am better at it, this is my third house in Austin and like I have gotten really good at like creating a space for myself. Because I think that’s another thing that like prevents you from feeling lonely: The object aspect. I think it’s a good practice to have things that you enjoy that remind you of your intentions and remind you of times where you have been intentional or times when you have been in practice or you felt loved or you participated in some sort of collective experience.
Do you have in your home a lot of objects that are meaningful and embody your spirit?
Yes! Yes! And like not even my spirit, like I have a lot of paintings and art from my friends and that’s just one of the kindest gifts anyone could give you. I’m just like “wow you love me so much”. I have like little rocks and flowers, and it’s a room that I’ve specifically designed and crafted so that I’m reminded of people who love me. The objects are a reminder of the different avenues in which I can escape loneliness.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
I think that getting a journal is just like very important. I actually got my first journal when I was 16. I talked to one of my favorite neighbors Lynn, she was such a cool lady like she lived in a house that was like on the other side of the street and she had three pigeons and cats. She was a cool woman. I really admired her like everything that she did. She just taught me a lot and she told me that she had a journal from the time that she was like sixteen, and that its easy for her to go back and read over those things. Over those volumes and volumes and volumes and like understand where she’s coming from and understand like now the problems she had back then no longer apply to her, she’s able to take a step back and understand that her problems in the future are not necessarily permanent: like nothing is permanent, everything is temporary. All of our suffering is like created and like made up and like we make a choice to suffer, and that’s not me being like “oh you can’t be sad” like you are sad, but you can make decisions and like steps to not be sad. But yeah, I think writing is super important because I think when you practice harnessing words and terms to describe the way that you feel to yourself, then it like helps you eliminate that loneliness because then you have the words to describe it to other people. *