In the past two days, I have had two delightful conversations with women who both apologized for “bending my ear” or “talking too much.” The apologies were so unnecessary that I felt sad that the speakers even voiced them: I enjoyed both conversations very much and was grateful for these strangers, who took time out of their days to share their lives and listen to me in return.
The first conversation was a phone call with a married pastor who has kids at home but said that even with the family contact, as an extrovert, she struggles with COVID precautions. She’s trying to build communities on Zoom and specifically mentioned a desire to connect people who are single and feeling very isolated. (Sign me up!) The second was with an elderly widow, who struck up a conversation as we waited for our cars to be serviced. She talked about her grandkids and great-grandkids, the books she likes to read, the quilts she’s working on, the dog who passed a year ago.
I came away from both conversations feeling like my ears and my attention were needed, served a purpose, maybe brightened someone else’s day. And I have felt so unneeded, so superfluous, so extraneous for so much of COVID season that being able to listen as well as talk met a deep need for me, too.
As I’ve written before, I’ve spent most of my life feeling very lonely and isolated and disconnected from other people. Last fall and winter, those feelings crescendoed to the point that they seemed unbearable, intolerable. I didn’t think I could stand any more aloneness without shattering. For more than a year, in fact, I have been pushed beyond the limit of how much isolation I believed I could survive. Last February I decided I was ready to reach out more, but all I managed to do was flail around and churn up more chaos inside myself. I was on the verge of trying out a new church, though, and looking for other possibilities to broaden my circle.
And then COVID-19 shut everything down.
It’s not about me, of course, but I’m part of this, as we all are, and the only story I can tell right now is my own.
On the good days, I was grateful for all the very hard, very tough work I’d invested in my mental health and glad that COVID-19 hadn’t hit even a year earlier, because I had put serious effort into healing and developing appropriate strategies for dark times. I felt better equipped to handle the silences and the empty spaces and the ugly feelings without hiding behind endless stacks of books.
But. Whatever emotional, psychological, and spiritual resources I’d built up quickly became depleted, and the timing of the shutdown itself came to feel like a cosmic joke. Why would I have arrived at the clear, conscious realization that I’m less introverted than I used to be and that I need more people in my life more regularly — less than a month before the contact I did have was taken away completely? Why, just after I’d concluded that I craved more time with human beings and less time with books, was I confined to an apartment with thousands of books and no people?
In the version of my life where everything has a purpose, I can see now that maybe the timing makes a skewed sort of sense. In the year prior to lockdown, I had finally confronted and named the darkest demons in my psyche, and while I didn’t relish the idea — or the reality — of long months alone with them, maybe there were wrestling matches I needed to have — and to have them in a space where the collateral damage was limited because other people weren’t (able to be) around for much of it.
Also, after such serious anxiety and lack of focus that I’d lost my ability to read for more than a year, I’d finally become able, last winter, to track ideas long enough to finish books again. And despite everything — despite howling at God on Thanksgiving that I’m tired of just reading about life; I want to live — books have provided a comfort and a solace (and maybe even empathy) that I’ve been able to balance with other demands on my time. I’d never managed to achieve anything resembling that kind of balance before.
So as we finally see glimmers of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel — and I for one will be lining up for that damn vaccine as soon as it’s available — I feel like I’m emerging a pared-down, leaner, hungrier but maybe also more centered, less self-absorbed version of me. I expect that healing from this season will take time, because the isolation has bruised me deeply, and much as I crave instant cures, I’ve learned that wounds require time. But at least some days, I’m starting to think healing might be possible. And maybe things will actually, finally, improve. Maybe this isn’t just a story written by a sadist who loves to kick me when I’m already down.
My attitude toward other people has also shifted: what I can offer, what I need, what I’m willing to tolerate. I (want to) think I am less selfish and more focused on other people’s needs, more capable of being able to respond in helpful ways and not just be a burden, more open to truly listening and engaging. I know that once upon a time in the not so distant past, I would have nodded impatiently at that woman in the waiting room and kept my book open, signaling that I wanted to read rather than talk. But today I put my book and phone away and gave her my full attention.
Because I understand now just how brutally dehumanizing loneliness can be, and if I can alleviate someone else’s even for a few minutes I want to do that.
And I no longer take human contact for granted. Now I want to savor every one of those rare and precious moments of connection.