Four years ago, on a late Saturday afternoon in an Amsterdam cafe when in-person conversations were still a thing, I was enjoying a cup of tea with an old-time friend I hadn’t seen for a while, when she asked me a seemingly innocuous question that knocked me out.

“Have you been dating lately?”, she asked, knowing I hadn’t been in a relationship since breaking up with my ex-girlfriend a few years prior.

“No”, I replied, looking down at the table as if I had just confessed to a serious crime. “In fact, not once since I moved here”, I added, clinging to my cup of tea while I was trying to keep a stoic face.

My friend looked surprised, candidly recounting her own recent adventures in the big-city dating scene before dealing the final blow with another well-intended question.

“Don’t you miss any of that?”

Loneliness has a way of manifesting itself most strongly in the company of others, when life reminds you where you don’t feel whole and complete. Sitting in that cafe, surrounded by people, I remember recoiling in shame, clumsily dodging my friend’s question while holding on to my cup of tea even more strongly.

The truth is, at that time, I felt terribly alone.

Today, I am still alone, but I don’t feel as alone anymore. The distinction between the two long eluded me, until its contours slowly came into sharper focus through a personal journey I will share with you here. My hope is that you find something of value in my story if you sometimes struggle with loneliness yourself. You are not alone.

Hello darkness, my old friend

As the 18th century British writer Charles Caleb Colton aptly observed, “there are many who had rather meet their bitterest enemy in the field than their own hearts in their closets.”

That was certainly true for me when I moved to Amsterdam in the summer of 2012, fresh out of a relationship that had lifted me up after an episode of severe depression, only before disintegrating into mutual alienation because of my inability to fully open up to a person I cared about deeply.

I loathed myself in those days. For months, I slept on a mattress on the concrete floor of my new apartment, unable to envision a new life for myself – even though it only would have taken an hour or two to assemble my Ikea bed as a practical starting point. I started eating poorly, gained weight, and spent hours lying awake at night, ruminating, feeling like a failure, chastising myself for every mistake I’d made. I didn’t see much of Amsterdam that year.

One good friend, who had seen me depressed before in our college years, had gently warned me that this could happen. That a relationship can be a temporary crutch that helps stave off your inner demons, but that those demons will inevitably return if you don’t do the inner work to overcome them. I had brushed off my friend’s advice. Now I paid the price.

What got me through those dark days was a burning desire to develop and express myself as a writer, which led me to pursue any opportunity I could find to master my craft and learn from like-minded people. I started blogging. Writing for magazines. Visiting conferences. And in the spring of 2013, I finally caught a glimpse of new beginnings when I landed a job at Deloitte I had long coveted. Never mind that I still hadn’t bothered to assemble my bed.

Escaping the pain

There is a lot of loneliness in the corporate world that you never hear or read about. I know, because it was all I could feel as I was staring out of the windows on an empty office floor on a Friday evening, struggling to think of a reason to go home. Since I couldn’t find any, I would just stay a little longer and watch the sun set over the city before the cries of an empty stomach became impossible to ignore.

Work had become an escape from the reality of life. I dreaded the prospect of having a weekend all to myself. After grabbing a quick dinner at the train station, I would turn to my smartphone for companionship on my way home, keeping it within arm’s length until I hit the pillow.

It is clear to me now that this is no way to live. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that modern society has normalized behaviors that allow us to distract ourselves from loneliness without ever confronting it, in ways that Charles Caleb Colton couldn’t have foreseen when he wrote that we will do everything to avoid opening the closet of our own hearts.

How long do you feel comfortable sitting alone before reaching for your smartphone? How much silence will you tolerate before caving in to another Netflix binge-watch? Living life on auto-play has become the default, an opioid for the soul that renders us comfortably numb. Many are so afraid to occupy their mind with their own thoughts and feelings, that they’d rather fill it with whatever is available at their fingertips. I was certainly one of those people.

The problem with these coping mechanisms – whether it’s quick and empty calories, overwork, or compulsive media consumption – is not only that they are highly addictive and harmful in the long run, they keep you stuck in the same place. A place of hurt.

And that’s why I felt such a deep shame well up inside me when, years later, my Amsterdam friend asked me about my non-existent dating adventures. I had proudly assembled my bed by then, but dating? I wasn’t emotionally ready for any of that. In that moment it hit me that, at a certain point, people expect you to move on. When I hadn’t moved on at all.

For that to happen, a new realization had to sink in.

Turning depression into expression

It was past midnight on an April night in 2018, after I’d settled into a private apartment in the countryside of South Moravia in the Czech Republic, when I lay restless in my bed. But this time, it wasn’t regret or self-blame that kept me awake. I couldn’t sleep because I was excited to get up. I had an idea.

In her book The Choice, clinical psychologist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger writes that “the opposite of depression is expression”. There is a lot of truth and hope to be found in those simple words. Depression is feelings turned inwards, where they hold you captive to yourself. Expression is feelings turned outwards, where they get the chance to breathe. It’s what drove me to writing as a teenager wrestling with bouts of depression. Later in life, it propelled me to find another creative outlet in photography.

A creative pursuit will not protect you from suffering in life. But it will help you find meaning in it. Until the act of creation becomes a source of joy and happiness in itself.

For me, photography became an exercise in learning to see the beauty around me again, and to feel that beauty resonate deep inside me, forging an intimate connection between the two. It lifted my spirits and made me feel alive again.

I got out of bed that April night in rural Czechia, put on my hiking shoes, grabbed my photography gear, and stocked up on nuts, seeds, and other nutritious snacks before setting off into the fields. It was a dark and cloudless night. If I had done my research correctly, the Milky Way would encircle the sky around 3 a.m., and with relatively little interfering light from nearby villages, I was hoping to capture it with a clarity and brightness I hadn’t been able to do before in Europe. That was the idea.

I felt happy that night. Going on a spontaneous nocturnal mission in the middle of nowhere was a tiny act of expression. But it was a big contrast to the depression I had felt lying on the floor of my apartment many years before.

And the idea worked out. After a few hours of hiking, with my headlamp guiding me the way, I paused to set up my tripod in a field of crops. Billions of stars, so often hidden from sight on our highly urbanized and light-polluted continent, banded together in a display of galactic light. It was a glorious sight. I was all alone. Yet I felt anything but lonely. That’s when I realized for the first time: I can be happy by myself.

Finding your calm and purpose within

There is a cultural expectation in our society that at a certain age you find that special person in your life, you marry, you get kids. If you are alone, there must be something wrong with you. It can add to a nagging feeling of failure and incompleteness. It’s what makes some people rush into relationships they are not ready for. Sadly, it can also lead couples with relationship issues to view marriage or children as an escape hatch – anything to avoid a confrontation with the hearts in their own closets.

This focus on external fixes for internal problems is understandable. It makes them seem easier to solve. Or at least easier to ignore. Yet the inescapable truth remains, if we’re not comfortable being alone, we’ll never be truly comfortable with another person.

I learned this truth the hard way. You may have had to confront your own version of it. Or perhaps it’s staring at you in the mirror right now. That’s okay. Don’t let it make you feel worse about yourself. We’re all doing the best we can.

Sometimes, having been on my own for almost a decade now, I still get lonely. In those moments, I miss the feeling of being able to care for someone outside myself. But it is now much more of a fleeting sensation rather than the all-pervasive melancholy it used to be.

So how do you cultivate being alone? Developing a creative pursuit is one way that has helped me a lot. Adding structure to my days has been another. Over the past years I’ve invested a lot of effort in developing and honing my routines, finding a rhythm of life that allows me to approach every day with calm and purpose. These days, that means getting up at 5 a.m. when the world is quiet and peaceful, writing down what I’m grateful for, reading a printed book for an hour or so, spending another hour exercising or going for a walk, and then doing 30 minutes of meditation before plugging in to any type of digital technology.

I take great fulfillment in these rituals. They have made me value solitude rather than just tolerating it. At times I still struggle with not losing myself in work as a way of evading discomfort or loneliness – a challenge that has reared its head more than once since the pandemic started. Some days I fare better than others. On the bad days, I reassure myself with the thought that it’s the journey that matters. Not the occasional stumble.

One morning as I was walking through the undulating Czech countryside a few springs back, I came across a white little chapel, tucked away in a clump of trees. I was struck by the serenity of the scene, and as the soft morning light graced the surrounding fields with its warmth, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I decided to return a week later to take a few more photos. The chapel looked as peaceful as it had before. But something had changed.

The flowers in the fields were now blooming.

 

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