Back when my kids were small, I used to use them as an excuse for doing things like going to the zoo, but now that they’re both teens, the zoo has fallen off their list of ‘cool things to do’. This morning, they left for a few days’ of camp up North with some friends, my husband went to yeshiva and then work, and I was left with the whole day stretching out before me.
Many of the women my age (42) in my circles (Israeli, frum) would kill to have a whole day to themselves, I know. But my problem is often the exact opposite: sometimes, I’m really, really lonely.
Strange to say, since we moved to the big city of Jerusalem, I’ve been less lonely than when I used to live in my ‘cosy’ communities of only a few thousand people. When you ‘fit’ your community, then living somewhere small and intimate can be wonderful. When you don’t ‘fit’ - and let’s be clear, that I have never, ever ‘fit’ anywhere much, hard as I tried - then it can be a recipe for complete despair and mental illness.
It’s not always so easy being one of the rare people who aren’t popping anti-depressants just to get through the day, or who doesn’t have a Facebook account arranging their social life, or who keeps looking for more meaning in life than shopping, refurbishing, eating out and keeping fit.
Here in Jerusalem, I also don’t ‘fit’, but at least I live somewhere so eclectic and strange that I have that in common with pretty much all my neighbours. In most ways, I’ve made my peace with being alone so much of the time. I’m anyway a writer, and the aloneness is good for the creative process…and it gives me tons of time to talk to God…and it enables me churn books out at the rate of one every three months…
On the days when I’m writing, and lost in my internal world of gathering knowledge, splicing information together and turning out neat, bite-sized articles about all the different stuff I’m learning about, I don’t feel lonely.
But on the days when I don’t feel like typing so much, or I don’t have so much to say, or I really just want to spend some time interacting with real people, sometimes the loneliness is very intense. But you know the weird thing I recently realized? I think in 2016, pretty much all of us are lonely - and the most lonely people of all are the ones surrounded 24/7 by people.
A couple of months’ back, Hashem had me bump into someone I used to know from the old country. Back then, we were pretty good friends (or at least, so I thought) and we were both very, very sociable. She stayed in Britain, I moved to Israel, we fell out of touch. In the subsequent 11 years, I went from being a social butterfly to being a practical recluse, but I was sure that my old friend would still be tripping the light fantastic with 500 other outgoing couples, just like in the old days.
Turns out, I was plain wrong. My friend hangs out with just two couples these days. Even in London, socializing has apparently gotten a whole lot harder than it used to be.
Why is this? Some people will blame email and i-Phones, and they may well have a point because it’s hard to concentrate on the person in front of your face when the person sending you smileys gets announced by a ‘ping’. Others will blame the stressful pace of life and work, and they may also have a point because an exhausted person can’t do anything much except veg on a couch and stare at the wall.
But I think something much deeper is going on. In the past, there just weren’t so many people who were highly-strung, crazy, selfish and just plain nasty. Interactions weren’t as fraught or loaded. There weren’t as many ‘narcissist’ type people trying to manipulate you and make you feel bad about yourself. Very few people had the sort of medication-induced brain damage that renders a person unable to be real, really interested in other people, or really ‘there’, which is now unfortunately all too common.
In short, a lot of us have been finding that compared to spending a few hours with bona fide crazy people, it’s actually much easier to be by ourselves these days, even though it’s often lonely.
I know that’s what’s contributed to my own circumstances, because while there are a lot of people I could call, so many of them are so complicated and so unpleasant or self-absorbed to be around, I often just prefer my own company.
So it was that today, I went to the zoo by myself. I found myself a quiet corner under a tree to sit and contemplate the world around me, and to talk to God about how lonely I was feeling.
Why do I spend so much of my life alone, God? Why have you arranged things to work out that way in my life, that my days aren’t stretched to breaking by a large family, or a full-on job, or a large circle of friends? Why do I seem to be the only person here, who came to the zoo by myself?
My heart always knows the answers to these questions, and it’s when I talk to God that they get communicated to my head, and when I finally get some peace. But still, it's lonely in 2016. Really lonely.