July hasn’t been easy. This post is a thank you letter and a way to make sense of the emotionally tumultuous month gone by, one of the most difficult ones I’ve had during my Korean Sojourn thus far. I don’t know where to start because I’m uncomfortable being so open about this vulnerable topic—loneliness. It’s an emotion that isn’t really talked about all that much, even though most of us feel it throughout our lives to varying degrees. But here we go...
“The problem is sure to get worse, the more thoughtful and perceptive we are. There will simply be less people like us around. It isn’t a Romantic myth: loneliness truly is the tax we have to pay to atone for a certain complexity of mind.” – The Book of Life
You know the feeling well, when you’re suddenly overcome by a subtle and nagging mixture of emptiness and melancholy. And you’re unsure why these sensations have risen to the surface when you were jolly and happy-go-lucky a few moments ago. The longing to be seen and understood makes itself so pronounced that it’s nearly impossible to brush off or ignore. Other times you’re unsure what exactly you’re yearning for. Then you start questioning if the foundation of your *happiness* is really all that stable, which leads to confusion and feeling a bit lost. I’ve been feeling like this a lot lately.
Before we continue, let’s make something crystal clear: I love being a strong and independent woman. Doing what I wanna do, unapologetically going after what I want without having to explain myself to anyone. But when loneliness creeps in, I start to doubt and even wonder if my strength and independence are really all that great. And I begin to feel painfully small. These are not easy admissions. In fact, there’s a certain amount of shame that society subconsciously teaches us to associate with feeling isolated. But the truth is that I’m not alone in feeling alone at times (or a lot).
Last month I organized and hosted a wonderful event to celebrate the launch of my self-published book. The social featured visual art, poetry and dance + music performances. It was a dreamy occasion. I named the function Catharsis because earlier in the year I underwent an intense amount of emotional untangling, a very cathartic episode if you will. I learned a lot about the importance of airing out our feelings and emotions, especially the unpleasant ones like sadness, anxiety, worry and so on. The reception to Catharsis was amazing. I ended June on a high note!
Then came July… Seemingly nothing specific happened to trigger a crippling sense of isolation. Suddenly the joys and delights of a life abroad started to lose its appeal in favor of feeling homesick and missing friends, family and familiar places. It dawned on me that I’ve been away for a year and half, which in abstraction isn’t that long, but as I’m living it out, it feels long indeed. That’s the funny thing about the perception of time—it’s very relative and highly influenced by our attitudes. I realized that although I enjoy living in Korea, perhaps, I’ve had enough of living in Daegu, a quaint and lackluster city in the middle of the Korean peninsula. I have itchy feet to explore other lands and cultures. I’m craving newness.
These feelings ebb and flow. I’ve felt this way before and so have plenty of my friends here. It seems that at the moment the sentiment in my immediate social group is this—that we're ready to move on elsewhere. This doesn’t mean I hate my life here. I knew I’d spend 2 years in Korea and I committed. And I was well aware that undertaking anything worthwhile would sure be full of challenges. After all, facing hurdles is an inevitable part of life which, in turn, facilitates personal growth. I’d even argue struggle gives meaning to our existence. But it’s tough to maintain this outlook during an extended rut.
Melancholy became way too pronounced and overstayed her stay during this month. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with feeling melancholic. In fact, I feel this way often, on a consistent basis. I’ve grown fond of feeling this way because it truly makes me appreciate the good times a whole lot more. And just because I don’t deny myself from feeling sad doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. Quite the contrary is true. Plus, throughout history the most interesting art and literature has been written about people dealing with life’s difficult situations. I really don’t think I would (or could) be a writer if I felt happy the majority of the time. The profound and recurring sense of loneliness doesn’t burden me. It’s a part of me. With that said, melancholy and I get along because the sensation usually subdues.
“Enduring loneliness is almost invariably better than suffering the compromises of false community. Loneliness is simply a price we may have to pay for holding on to a sincere, ambitious view of what companionship must and could be.” – The Book of Life
The desire for companionship—connection, understanding, feeling valued, and so on—is a normal human yearning because, after all, we are social animals. While living in this foreign country, I’m often reminded of how on my own I am. Korea is a place that is obsessed with coupledom. Being single is almost viewed as a tragedy. Hence, I’m reminded of my perpetual singledom on the daily. The Coupledom Apocalypse is everywhere around me, from the nauseatingly adorable Korean couples prancing around in matching outfits to my closest friends of which most are coupled or married off.
But people in relationships feel lonely, too. Everyone is lonely to a certain extent despite relationship status. As the Book of Life wittingly says, “The desire to undress someone is for a long time far more urgent than the desire for good conversation – and so we end up locked in relationships with certain people we don’t have much to say to, because we were once fatefully interested in the shape of their nose and the color of their remarkable eyes.” You can be lonely while single or with a partner that possibly doesn't fully ‘get you.’
I often find that articulating these feelings helps. By letting out the sounds, loneliness (or any other unpleasant emotion) loses weight and importance. Over a recent conversation about this topic, a dear friend told me that she also feels lonely on a consistent basis—as if something is currently lacking from her life—and she lets herself feel this emotion without dwelling on it. However, she’s wise enough to understand that the root cause of these feelings stems from comparing our lives with that of others—our friends, family, strangers on the ‘gram, etc. Or from the expectations we have for ourselves (sometimes subconsciously), perhaps because the idea of what our circumstances were supposed to look and feel like don’t quite match our current reality. And that’s okay. It’s tricky to avoid comparisons and form expectations, but we do have the power to not identify with and latch on to these conceptualizations.
“Loneliness makes us more capable of true intimacy if ever better opportunities do come along. It heightens the conversations we have with ourselves, it gives us a character. We don’t repeat what everyone else thinks. We develop a point of view. We might be isolated for now, but we’ll be capable of far closer, more interesting bonds with anyone we do eventually locate.” – The Book of Life
The painting series I did for Catharsis emphasized negatively perceived emotions because, well, we all feel them. Most pieces were portraits depicting sensations such as emptiness, confusion, doubts, frustration, nostalgia, etc. I wanted to convey that “negative” emotions are intrinsic to the human condition. That we wouldn’t taste the sweet nectar of joy without the bitterness of pain and heartache. Because I believe we do ourselves a disservice when we deny or disallow ourselves to fully feel unpleasant emotions. We should befriend feelings that make us uncomfortable to acknowledge.
Feeling lonely is an inescapable part of our humanness. And that’s okay. Because loneliness, sadness, inadequacy, insecurity and other “negative” emotions are parts of a happy life. Let’s get to know and make sense of them a little better.
How do you cope (and make sense) of “negative” emotions? If you enjoyed this article, pass it on! / Don’t forget to subscribe below for bi-monthly updates!