I never stop coming back to some words. In reality, I come back to a great many words. I do not find too many remain stable for any rigorous intent using a single invariable, inviolate denotation. In the colloquial, words are slippery beasts. Words are inarguably both as concept and as tool one of the greatest inventions of the human story. Words set us free to express emotions, thoughts, and ideas, encapsulating in succinct sound-bites whole abstractions and experiences into easily digestible chunks that are transferred endlessly from person to person, long after their first utterance is made. Words are a short-circuit between everyone’s disparate realities, ever-rolling through time, compressing into inexpensive, cheap even, alternatives of the real thing.
Words themselves never lie, albeit they oft times fail to convey the truths they are entrusted to represent. It is easy to hide (from) assumptions that come embedded in words; entire civilizations’ core values and wisdoms become mashed, boiled, and then finally, brutally distilled into a form often far afield from their original inspiration and intent. Words, so intended to liberate and transcend us past the temporally-trapped nowness of our existence, can equally imprison us into perceived realities that neither listener nor speaker understood or intended. What fascinates me even more than simple deviation between denotation and connotation, intended versus perceived meanings of words is when words that are apparently, superficially congruent are instead subtly in diametric opposition. There are two that come to mind: alone and lonely; to love and to be in love.
Etymologically speaking, lonely is the adjectival form of lone. And lone is merely the aphetic shortening (dropping of the initial, unstressed sound) of alone. And alone is a contraction of all ana (all by oneself), or more literally wholly (all) one (ana). I write all of this to evidence the fact that these two words are deeply related to each other, at least linguistically; however, in my own experience this is as far as the two words go in terms of relationship; linquistic but no more. Lonely, and its first-cousin, loneliness describe an emotional state; whereas, alone merely describes an observation of the physical state. And here is where I found myself making a near fatal mistake: lonely and alone do not form a tautology; to be in one state does not imply the other state is also true. To be alone does not mean lonely, nor does to not be alone mean you are not lonely.
I am sure this, at some intellectual level, is a mere curiosity that is quite apparent upon casual inspection; it may even be to elementary to you, the reader. I can assure this was not the case for me. I know for myself these distinctions alluded me at some level deeper than mere cognitive recognition for nearly the entirety of my first 35 years of life. I grew up believing that the cure to my loneliness was to not be alone; if only I could find another person to share my life then I would no longer be lonely. Why? Because, simply put, alone and loneliness were at deep, primordial level a tautology to me, interchangeable words that only varied by grammatical usage. Yes, I could be heard quipping “I am alone, but not lonely” and sometimes this was true but I also felt that this kind of existence was better left to a once-and-awhile-kind-of-thing; much better be it if I were to share my life with another person and therefore avoid all together the whole rather icky matter of “alone but not lonely”. Loneliness for me seemed like a permanent, perennial condition of my existence, and what I lacked to combat this depressed state of existence was a deep connection with another person to ward against this even deeper sense of emptiness in myself.
It was not till my recent divorce that I finally came to understand the insanity, the very untenable position, of this tautology I was trying to maintain between alone and loneliness. I vividly recall my then fiancee and I — both recovering from our failed first marriages — sharing with each other our belief that being married to each other to share our lives with was a great and noble means to obtain contentment. But embedded in that sentiment of sharing our lives was also a deeper fear that our loneliness stemmed from our being alone; ergo cohabitation through the virtue of marriage would nicely cauterize the bleeding we both felt at being alone and lonely in a rather cold and indifferent world. Some two years later we found ourselves in a relationship to each other, not alone but feeling lonely. For my wife the solution was divorce; but, that is another story which I wish to return but later and on the matter of being in love and to love. Nevertheless, I found myself again alone, and most poignantly so for me at a point in my life when I was looking forward to starting a family with my wife, comforted in the then irrefutable fact that I was going to spend the rest of my life with the person I deeply, deeply loved. It was unbearable beyond words to discover all those dreams one moment here, the next moment fanciful memories.
A month or after she left I was taking a walk with a very close friend of mine who shared with me something that became a watershed moment for me. Let me first put some things in context. This friend of mine has the life I had hoped to build for myself, a person who in many ways I both envy and admire. And because of this fact, I have often looked to him to suss out clues to the secrets that I was missing. He turned to me and said as if he was telling me the weather, “Some days I just feel all alone in this world.” Casual as he may have been, it was anything but for me. It was like someone telling me gravity was up, that rain was dry, or snow was hot. This could not possibly be: he lonely? Surely, impossibly not. He comes home to a wonderful wife. His two children adore him and want nothing more than to play with their father when he comes home. And when night comes they together put their children down to bed and then turn to each other, close the bedroom door and find sleep and comfort in each others warm embrace. How could anyone be lonely in this context, I wondered. But in the same moment I was wondering this was the very same moment another part of my brain snapped and the assumptions about causality between loneliness and alone exploded, and in their ruins remained a mere coincidence, a juxtaposition of linguistic curiosity and etymology.
Certainly I am not trying to speak universal truths; only that what I write next is my universal truth. I have come to realize that the loneliness I felt is not the feeling of being separate from other people, it is the feeling I have when I am separated from myself. And by separated I mean to imply uncomfortable: I was afraid being left too long to my own self. And in this way the etymology from all ana makes startlingly sense: wholly (with) oneself. More startlingly still is that loneliness is not some complimentary sister to alone, it is its very contradiction. If we accept our original denotation of all ana then to be alone is to be wholly oneself then we are only true positively alone when we are wholly comfortable with being with ourselves, whole and separate from everything else. The fact, even argument, that we do not feel lonely when we are with other people is explained best as a parlor trick of smoke and mirrors, a bit of sleight of hand whereby we misdirect our own mind from the discomfort we have being left in our own company. Viewed in this light, alone is not just a state of physical existence but it becomes a critical virtue of the self-actualized person. Alone is not something to obliterate, it is something to embrace.