The Feeling of Being Alone

A Strange Note in Mayyu*

‘Dear Reader, I want to tell you that everything will be okay. I want to tell you that it will get better. I want to tell you that it all works out in the end. But sometimes it doesn’t.’ 


This sentiment which becomes familiar to a lot of us in adulthood was echoed in Debbie Millman’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, a reinvigorating book compiled by the brilliant Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick.


When things do not get better, we are sometimes thrown into a state of existential questioning where the feeling of aloneness becomes an all too familiar companion, more so for someone whose persona has been shaped into the realms of what is termed introversion. In Maggie Nelson’s lyrical meditation on Blue, she observes that ‘Loneliness is solitude with a problem.’ It is a state and feeling of isolation that is intensified by the arrowhead of silence. 


In his deeply enriching reflection on The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, David Whyte echoes what a majority of us have experienced about silence, noting that ‘silence is frightening, an intimation of the end, the graveyard of fixed identities. Real silence puts any present understanding to shame; orphans us from certainty; leads us beyond the well-known and accepted reality and confronts us with the unknown and previously unacceptable conversation about to break in upon our lives.’


Within the territory of silence, the self is pulled by despair, mostly because we have great difficulty being by ourselves, in silence. Despite its threatening air, it is in silence that we make sense of aloneness. Whyte observes that ‘in silence, essence speaks to us of essence itself and asks for a kind of unilateral disarmament, our own essential nature slowly emerging as the defended periphery atomizes and falls apart. As the busy edge dissolves we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, revealing in the way we listen, a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, and belonging to a different person than the one who first entered the quiet.’


Artwork by Marcellina Akpojotor

Deep within me. 2020. By Marcellina Akpojotor. 


More Reshapers of Aloneness

Outside the premises of silence, music gives language to aloneness. In getting lost within the magic of James Blake, the quirky audacity of Lorde, the crevices of The Cavemen whose music stills me at the juncture of ancient and modern Nigeria, the tenderness of Rhodes, the quieting numbers of Billie Eilish, and, randomly, the hits of several decades (particularly the 70s and 2000s), I’ve found, as Aldous Huxley contemplated in Music at Night, that ‘after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’


Recalling an activity through which I’ve found solace, and revisiting Debbie Millman’s letter; 


‘Most times it is hard and we usually end up getting used to it. But there is something you can do in response: read.


Read until your heart breaks and you can’t stand it anymore. Read until you have paper cuts from turning pages or blisters from swiping a screen.


You see, here’s the thing: even at their worst, books won’t abandon you. If they make you cry it’s only because they are that good.


You can depend on books. They will always be there for you. Their patience is infinite and they have been known to save lives. They can help you become a smarter, more interesting person. Books can probably help you get dates, though I don’t recommend you ask that much of them too often (you don’t want to limit their power).


Books — like dogs — are among a handful of things on this planet that just want to be loved. And they will love you back, generously and selflessly, requiring very little in return — until they are complete, their light and their wisdom and their hearts sputtering to an inevitable, lonely end.’


Artwork by Chidinma Nnoli

When you learn to breathe. 2021. By Chidinma Nnoli


An Antidote for Aloneness

In Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler writes that ‘Self is body and bodily perception. Self is thought, memory, belief. Self creates. Self destroys. Self learns, discovers, becomes. Self shapes. Self adapts. Self invents its own reasons for being. To shape God, shape Self.’


For the self to be, it has to question and decide and act. But for these to happen, the element of desire must exist within the self. In this way, an antidote to the piercings of aloneness is longingness. 


‘Longing,’ David Whyte notes, ‘is the transfiguration of aloneness … like a comet’s passing tail, glimpsed only for a moment but making us willing to give up our perfect house, our paid for home and our accumulated belongings. Longing has its own secret, future destination, and its own seasonal emergence from within, a ripening from the core, a seed growing in our own bodies; it is as if we are put into relationship with an enormous distance inside us leading back to some unknown origin with its own secret timing indifferent to our wills, and gifted at the same time with an intimate sense of proximity, to a lover, to a future, to a transformation, to a life we want for ourselves, and to the beauty of the sky and the ground that surrounds us.’


This longing requires specificity and relentless pursuance through the lens of love. As observed by Butler, ‘love quiets fear. And a sweet and powerful positive obsession blunts pain, diverts rage, and engages each of us in the greatest, the most intense of our chosen struggles.’


To anyone within the boat of aloneness that is a result of loss (either of hope, clarity, a job, a person), yet desiring to revive the spirit of becoming, remember, as Butler brightly reminds us, that ‘if you want a thing — truly want it, want it so badly that you need it as you need air to breathe, then unless you die, you will have it. Why not? It has you. There is no escape. What a cruel and terrible thing escape would be if escape were possible.’ 


1 Question for You

What’s been on your mind lately? 


As you think through this question, here’s what you should read next: Digest the core attributes of true friendship, which is a timeless exploration of the value of a true community. Consume the step-wise advice on identifying the roots of your sorrow. And revisit the possibility of existing as different selves


*Mayyù is the Berber word for the month, May. Berber is spoken by 14 to 25 million people in Northern Africa throughout the Mediterranean coast, the Sahara desert and Sahel.