The Art of Intimacy

Some time ago, I read “The Opposite of Loneliness,” by Marina Keegan, a 22 year-old writing prodigy, killed in a car accident upon graduation from Yale University. She opened her award-winning essay, which spawned an extraordinary, posthumous bestselling book of the same name, with perhaps the most succinct distillation of human suffering ever articulated in print.

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.

There are two profound tragedies of the human condition: Loneliness is one. Impermanence is the other. Loneliness is a tragedy of space. Impermanence is a tragedy of time. Humans are felled by their bodies — prisons that confine us to only where and when we exist. Today, we’ll focus exclusively on trying to subvert loneliness. We’ll explore loneliness in an attempt to find its “opposite.”

To find the word for the opposite of loneliness, we first need to define the word itself. Loneliness is commonly articulated as the sensational byproduct of being physically, mentally or emotionally alone. For example, if you had moved to a new city, or started a new job, and maybe the others would initially look at you like you’d grown a second head, as a curious interloper from another planet thrust into a foreign culture. That’s almost loneliness, but still not quite right. Real loneliness runs deeper than that. It’s feeling alone even when you aren’t actually alone.

Have you ever had the overwhelming sense of being alone, despite a venerable cornucopia of people you could call to knock back a cocktail or 12? Do you, perhaps, go out, and then stumble home at 3 a.m. and choke half to death on your own self-loathing? Each early morning ending exactly as the day began, no closer to those you’d gallivanted around with, and your cat silently judging you, while your friends text you and say “Man, that shit was epic?” Yet you still feel apart? Grand loneliness can arrive cloaked in a long con of community. Succinctly: Loneliness isn’t feeling like you don’t really know anybody. It’s feeling like nobody could ever really know you. How does this manifest itself?

When you’re with people, you speak and receive faint nods of approval, off-hand laughter, and pithy responses to zingers or outside-the-box thoughts. You might share a common ground, a common goal or a common interest. You disperse to bond another day. And yet you’re still left wondering why it isn’t clicking. You may describe your relationship with the world as a car in second gear, a fire-hose bulging and bursting from the inside-out, yet a mere mist when sprayed at its target. Loneliness is an unfulfilled desire for connection with others, a loathing and resignation that’s directed inward … the electrical voltage that sparks connection reversed and turned upon itself, paralyzing you the way a Taser would. You’ve watched your authentic self wall itself off from others; the communication with the outside world is tense and terse.

Guarded sharing is risk mitigation applied to social settings. It’s a series of quick-win verbal habits that are designed to be snackable content IRL. Everyone loves a biting wit, a compliment or good news. Bring enough of it to enough people and you’ll make them feel warm and fuzzy all over. These are oral slap-singles, and they’re nearly a bulletproof way to be likable. Maybe you’ve done this. I’ve done this often. In fact … it is my default setting. Make people smile and laugh and then vanish into the ether.

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