Reflections from the Beginning

The process of unlearning this collective loneliness can officially restart.

The pain for me was loneliness. It was a cold searing burned deep in my chest, ever-present and smoldering. I remember it silently manifesting while pondering over who my friends would be when I was an adult. Even as a young teenager, I worried I would arrive at adulthood and find myself unmistakably alone.

Worse off, I would gauge the future of my relationships based on the quality of friends my parents attuned. During my late middle school years, my parents were spread pretty thin. Between losing their jobs, the 2008 financial crisis, and losing four grandparents quite suddenly, they had little room for both parenting and maintaining dynamic friendships. The friendships they did have existed, but they unsurprisingly were not from a diverse background. They met and mingled over the fact that their kids went to the same, mostly white, roman catholic school. All of this paired with a lack of meaningful connection, and I was sold that my life’s future would look and feel more of the same. They did the best they could, but my childlike mind painted this truth as incredibly isolating and boring. 

But where did this loneliness come from? When and how did it manifest? Had it always been there waiting to be amplified while I continuously found no solution? I found a piece of the answer in my turn to science and education. In the early 2000s, a team of psychologists (John Cacioppo, Dr. Nicholas Christaki, and James Fowler) published a series of studies showing that emotional states and behaviors (like happiness, obesity, and smoking) can propagate like a wave throughout a network of people. In 2009 they published Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network, which I stumbled upon late into 2015.

At this time in my life, the natural ups and downs of loneliness were coming to an all-time high. My new college environment had me surrounded with a new group of strangers, bumping about blindly. More of the same white heteronormativity I had been unable to escape before. I had just come out to my family and left them alone in our hometown to sit with the fact that I didn’t know my sexual orientation and that I definitely was not straight, only to arrive back where I started. 

When reviewing the data, the researchers found a trend of loneliness scores in the community; they noticed if one person reported feeling lonely at one evaluation, their closest connections (family or close friends) were fifty-two percent more likely to report feeling lonely two years later. The effect was most substantial among those in intimate relationships, waning as the connections became more distant, but remained significant up to three degrees of separation. This data plainly shows us that our feeling of isolation affects our friends and their friends as well. It shows us that for some, the pang of loneliness can become a persistent condition.

I felt lonely when my mother told me she cried when she rationalized that I was gay. This moment shared between her and her friend, who also had a queer son coming into his own. Our families were both liberal but blissfully unaware of the expressions of queerness. I imagine them on the phone together, my mom and her confidant. The two of them bonding over the fact that they both had gay sons, and both had a new set of challenges to overcome.

“Katherine told me she wept when Jack came out. I know this sounds bad, but I really know what she is going through.”

A cold shiver shot down my spine, my chest all of a sudden heavy and achy. I admit this was a dramatic reaction from my body internally, but yet, externally, I had both imagined feeling and appearing healthy. 

I thought it was normal.

” Well, it’s okay to be sad, mom. I know that things are going to be different for me.” 

I thought she was sad for me. I assumed she thought that growing up gay would be hard and that moving through space would require a certain amount of bravery and authenticity. 

I was wrong. 

Without much probing, I remember noting that she was sad I would never meet, marry, and love a woman as a wife; she was sad about her reality within that statement. Stranded in my thoughts, I wondered where that sadness had manifested. Was she now denied the potential of being a grandmother? As if me being gay meant she would no longer be able to be a grandma to the kin of her own. Our imagined mutual futures no longer lined up as we planted seeds of our homophobic insecurities and emotions deep inside one another. Looking back, I never wondered which one of these seeds would grow into their own burden. I didn’t anticipate that my mother would develop a new fear for my safety. Or loneliness in that she couldn’t provide a home for me anymore. Additionally, how could I predict that my isolation would foster further insecurity in my ability to have a meaningful, loving connection with my future family?

I think about why my loneliness and her loneliness misunderstood each other at that moment. I sat with the feelings of being misunderstood as I read Alone in The Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network. The more I began to understand the social forces at play, science showed me the critical driver of loneliness: the network of people around us unintentionally teaching our bodies how to look and feel lonely. In realizing that the phenomena of loneliness spreads through transmission from person to person, I could interpret loneliness like a virus and as a public health crisis. 

My plan with how to deal was first to reduce the isolation given to me. I realized I needed to state my feelings plainly and openly. By teaching myself the vocabulary of self-care, I could have improved conversations with those around me. By opening up about my feelings, I could connect to those around me. 

Secondly, I learned how to cultivate healthier relationships. By connecting with others that felt similar, I began to hear their needs and intrinsically know how to advocate for them. Through this work, I was able to advocate for individual growth and interpersonal pattern change.

From there, I realized my next step was to enable the strengthening of my friends’ social health and the growth of their social connections to reduce the spread of loneliness. That this is what would carry my ability to create and fundamentally exist within a healthy community. 

Finally, by allowing myself to show up fully for others and championing a non-judgemental attitude, my authenticity began to build in other’s lives within my community. As my friends modeled healthy dynamics with each other interpersonally, we began to show up to each interaction without fear of being judged. This transparency is secure because it’s mutual and brought by every member in every interaction. Trust now grows, and from here, the process of unlearning this collective loneliness can officially restart. 

I encourage you to try this process out for yourself. Iterate the steps to make them your own. Access to vocabulary and education are always strong starting points. Build empathy and bridges, elevate the voices of the people around you, and slowly the world will open itself up to you; to me, it has been beautifully queer.

“Queer not as being about who you’re having sex with (that can be a dimension of it); but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”

— bell hooks

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