Yesterday, I was doing dishes and singing along to my music library on shuffle when the song “Heavy” by Birdtalker came on.
I’ve loved this song for a few years and sang it hundreds of times, the lyrics often feeling deeply personal, like they were written for me. Yesterday, however, as I made room for yet another coffee cup in the dishwasher, I couldn’t help but think that the lyrics now felt universal and timely.
“Cause we’re all lonely, we’re all lonely together.”
The song talks about feeling alone, feeling misunderstood and not knowing why you feel that way. It’s about longing for real connection, letting go of the baggage you always seem to carry and embracing who you are –after you figure out who that is, of course.
The lyrics that once struck me as personal now feel all-embracing … words written for people who have never spent an extensive amount of time alone with just themselves; words written for those who don’t want to be alone; words written for all of us, perhaps, who are social distancing our days away.
“Don’t you just, don’t we all just wanna’ be together.”
In the 2019 fall semester, I spent an awful lot of time alone – and I hated it.
I moved out of the dorm I had lived in since freshman year and got an apartment near downtown Omaha. Our new place was beautiful, and I was living with one of my best friends in the entire world, just us two. I should’ve been ecstatic, but I was mostly feeling sad.
My loud, rambunctious, big family lives two hours away. My best friends from high school – who are still my best friends now – all go to college in Lincoln. I wasn’t in a relationship. And my roommate, who started nursing school shortly after we moved, was busier than she’d ever been.
In our new apartment, I didn’t admire the natural light or the bare walls begging to be decorated. My one observation? It was quiet.
As I settled into my “new life” that semester, I found myself being incredibly uncomfortable in the silence. As a natural extrovert, when my classes were over I never really wanted to drive home – it would just mean I’d be alone again. As a few weeks went by, I realized I had never really spent a substantial amount of time by myself in my 20 and a half years of life. (I lived with eight siblings or three roommates up until that semester.) I didn’t even know what my own thoughts sounded like and having the time and solitude to sift through my messy brain sent a jolt of panic through me.
I thought I knew myself entirely—head to toe, brain to heart. If there was any girl in the world who was secure in her identity, I believed it was me. But when it came down to it, when I was left alone with myself, those truths didn’t seem to hold up.
“If you’re lost and you’re lonely, go and figure out why. Take a trip to your dark side, go on and have a good cry.”
In the loneliness, my rational brain told me to do something, to make a change, to fix it. But I knew that this short season would teach me something – that if I didn’t get “to know myself” then, I would have to eventually. And it would be a lot messier later. I had the privilege to slow down and not add anything to my life for a semester. So, I settled into the loneliness, and I tried to learn who I was and what I liked and where I wanted to be someday.
Prayer and journaling were essential for me in this time period. I didn’t feel like I could get a foothold in my life, but my faith allowed me to ground myself in realities that I desperately needed to hear. I read, I wrote and I questioned. I spent time thinking about both difficult and joyful memories, going to places that I hadn’t ever revisited. I cried more than a little and spent hours on the phone with my mom or facetiming my best friends or talking to my roommate, who always had a hug when I needed it.
“These seasons of suffering are not for nothing. They will grow you. They will shape you. They will soften you,” wrote Lysa TerKeurst. I put sticky notes with quotes from her book “It’s not supposed to be this way” on the bathroom mirror and my bedroom wall.
Those few months were some of the hardest of my life, but by stopping and listening to my inner dialogue, by asking myself “why are you upset?” until I got the heart of the matter, by getting to know myself, by intentionally pursuing things that brought me joy, I grew into a person who I like to be. And the start of this semester, though still a little lonely, was filled with some of the happiest days of my life. When I found I was one again alone with myself, I didn’t panic. I settled in, and often I even enjoyed those times.
Now, I know more of who I am and what I like and where I want to go someday. When I have questions, I am able to find answers. I know myself, not entirely, but far more completely than I did in August.
“If your face is down, take a look around. Do your fingers move? Do your lungs inflate?”
As we all practice social distancing, I understand (truly!) how hard it is for some of us to be by ourselves. Some of us have never been alone, others have been alone far too much and some simply don’t want to be alone at all. We are all being forced to stop and settle into a season of loneliness, not knowing how long it may last.
This time is not easy, and I wish it didn’t have to be this way. But I also see it as an opportunity for all of us to intentionally get to know ourselves, to ask questions and find answers and spend time doing things we genuinely like to do (six feet apart and in our homes, that is.) Prayer and journaling helped me, but maybe meditating, yoga, painting, playing guitar, running or meeting with a counselor is for you. (UNO is still offering free mental health services over the phone and you can schedule an appointment by giving Counseling and Psychological Services a call.)
What do you do when you’re stressed or worried or sad? What do you do when you’re happy or hyper? What do you want your career to look like? Where are all the places you want to travel – do you like even like traveling? If you had to describe yourself in one word, what would you say? How well do you know you?
Niia Nikolova, a postdoctoral researcher of psychology, explained the correlation between happiness and self-knowledge in her article “Want to be happier? Try getting to know yourself” for The Conversation.
“Without self-knowledge we cannot have an internal measure of our own worth. We end up looking out to the world, rather than into ourselves, in order to know what we should feel, think and want,” Nikolova wrote.
It’s government mandated that we stop going and start staying home, but the glass could be half full instead of half empty. Maybe this is some much-needed rest that you never would’ve gotten otherwise. Maybe this is an opportunity instead of a cancellation. Maybe, when life returns to normal, you’ll find that you feel more like yourself than you ever did before.
Maybe you’ll feel lighter because you’ve finally had the time and space to deal with all of that weight you’ve been carrying.
“Leave what’s heavy, what’s heavy behind.”