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On the unquantifiable
creating our own definition of what it means to be connected
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The Equinox is a time of balance, and in honor of that, I’d like to talk about relationships. Specifically, this post is about loneliness and what I believe to be the unquantifiable but wholly balanced existence.
Let’s begin with our feet on the ground.
In the US, and perhaps much of the world, there’s a lot of pressure to hit “numbers” or find fulfillment in false praise. Many things we buy carry this promise and the promise of safety that seems entwined with being surrounded by those who adore us.
Here are a few extreme examples that have stuck with me:
Personal case study: A good friend with a large family once told me that her mother judged a person’s life by the number of people who attended their funeral. Years later, I saw a news story about a man who put out a paid advertisement for folks to come to his wife’s funeral because the couple had no family and a small group of friends.
Observation: Some writers (many writers) I know obsess over social media followings and the following of those they follow but at what cost to their writing?
Data: People living in the U.S. have fewer close friends than they once did but more social media presence, which comes with the appearance of a larger network. Meanwhile, according to a huge study that compared mental health before and after social media, “Facebook led to an increase in severe depression by 7% and anxiety disorder by 20%” in college students. I’m guessing this can be true for us older folks, too.
When I read or hear or observe such things, I can’t help but think: What if we measured our lives, creative output, and relationships by the way we connected with and related to others, rather than trying to hit a number or go for optics/worry about how we compare?
What if our art helped a few people to see the world differently but never hit a bestseller list or was hung on a museum wall? What if we listened deeply to someone who needed an available ear?
Heartfelt gratitude for your support.
To have a small network of close friends and family, or even a small network in business, is something that we often feel pressure to change. It’s said that it is bad for our health and business if we can’t cast our nets wide. Accordingly, we often think we need to double down on the number of people we connect to. But I want to argue that in our hyperconnected world, the urge to quantify makes us simultaneously less alone and lonelier.
To be physically alone or to have fewer family members or friends is not true loneliness, and to be surrounded by people who know you peripherally (or, let’s be honest, are even related to you but you don’t relate to) is never more valuable than a single meaningful relationship.
A person can be just as lonely when surrounded by masses of people or with a full calendar. And to be lonely, thanks to the messaging around it, can often be accompanied by guilt or worry that there is something wrong.
There is nothing wrong. In fact, those with more depth than breadth are often more fulfilled. I believe this is true when it comes to artistic reach as well.
"Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize." - Pico Iyer
I always set intentions this time of year, and one of my aims in the last few months is to better understand how to be alone because I believe the moments of solitude we have can be pathways to something divine (something within).
Maybe it’s something of a writer/artist thing to value alone time, but it can’t be entirely that. The pressure attached to belonging to clearly identifiable groups is toxic. The pressure in the writing world to “be seen” can be toxic also. There is so much competition that sometimes it can be difficult to know if other writers are friends or if they just want what you have.
I adore teaching and speaking. I adore crowds; meanwhile, friendships and close relationships, even with family and mentees, are more about deep and meaningful connections. The check-ins, not the comparisons. The support, not the false praise. The forgiveness, the humanness. The outreach. Did I mention the forgiveness?
It is sometimes only within our moments of solitude that we find ourselves able to better appreciate those relationships we value. These moments help us to mine the joys of life in new ways.
And for some of us, knowing we had one person to love fully might be more valuable than hoards showing up at our funeral. Those relationships that we can support without the need for reciprocation are not quantifiable, and that’s what I seek.
The moments that swell.
The art and writing that pierces through the numbers and to the heart.
The depth in work and relationship and life.
To me, this is balance. This is integration. The unquantifiable is the beauty of life.
Wishing you depth of art, relationships, and experiences.