In relation to connection and loneliness, college and young city life has been a series of extremes. Nowhere else have I experienced such overwhelming feelings of relation and mutual understanding – a bond so strong it causes me to absolutely crave the campus, community, and conversations whenever I step away. But in this same place, there have been times in which I’ve felt more alone than I’ve felt anywhere else, at any other point. It is disheartening that in a sea of students and people who understand and sympathize with my current situation, better than perhaps anyone else in the world, I have too often brushed passed them without feeling any connection. Too often in these moments of self-isolation, I reduce people to lists of impressive accolades, “facts,” organizations, clubs, teams…assuming descriptions that fail to illustrate anything real about anyone…descriptions that fail to teach me anything about myself.
This past summer, in a place so different than anything I had known – a place where I “knew” no one, I never once felt alone. Since back on campus, I’ve attempted to understand this difference. Here are six people from a summer in Bali who keep coming back to me:
The Young One – The amazement he had, seeing the ocean. Maybe cliché, but as his toes touched the sand the enchantment that ran through him was so visible—immediately completely unguarded—a portrait of happiness. I watched him stare at his foot, a part of his own body, and its amazing power to mush and crunch and lift this strange, fascinating material. His eyes sparkled. So, I took my shoes off and tried too and to my surprise, this capacity for wonder hasn’t dissolved with age.
The Old One – I looked forward to seeing her everyday. Biking home from work on winding, torn-up roads required concentration and the landscape became a collage of assaultingly vivid greens that literally twinkled in the low evening sun. Unmistakable though, a sight I always slowed down for – sitting on the side of the road, on the edge of the rice paddy, was a woman, sun soaked brown skin pronouncing itself against bright cream hair, damp from bathing, one hand resting on a basket, the other on her cane. Her body draped in a patterned sarong and a loose fitting top. Whatever she wore would have fit her body loosely; she seemed so fragile and so strong simultaneously. I never talked to her and I do not know her name, but she was there, reliably, bare foot, staring over the land. I often wondered what she thought about; it always seemed so peaceful. I wondered about how many months, years, decades she spent in this routine, sitting there in the same spot for me to cherish around 5:30 as I slowed my bike. We all have routines and often these routines are fixed for many years. I want to look like her, at ease, content, while I do mine – whatever they may be.
The Open One – “Read my journal,” she insisted. And I suddenly felt silly about hiding emotions, keeping things in. Did I feel my feelings were too emotional, too original, too unoriginal, too personal, too flawed to be shared with other people, created with the exact same ability to feel the exact same emotions? How egotistical to set myself apart. So, I dismissed my walls; I started using the word “I” in sentences; I agreed to blog. What a relief—realizing so many other humans surround me.
The Pretty One – She didn’t see it, somehow. We shared insecurities about how we looked, weight, body image…Is she serious? I thought to myself. How can she be insecure? What I would give to have hair like that, a smile, curves, legs, stomach… How silly it is that she talks so negatively of herself…and then she complimented me, and I drank my own prescription. Being nice to myself, not only in relation to exterior image, has made all the difference.
The Attractive One – He was gorgeous and interesting and kind and smart and mature and adventurous and unavailable. We laughed over dinner and toasted to the unpredictable path that somehow introduced us. I never saw him again but I didn’t need to. Sometimes I think I’m too picky when it comes to dating; I’m longing for some imagined ideal that doesn’t exist. But in these moments I only need to think back to that night, proof that there are people who you’ll feel a connection with instantly, easily. Too often I find myself mentally cramming puzzle pieces together that just don’t fit, deciphering my feelings, his signals…that’s a telling sign that I need to let it be. Compatibility and attraction aren’t so complicated.
The One Like Me – She had my dream job. She was independent, uniquely creative, forward thinking… I would love to say that I recognized myself in these traits but it wasn’t until I saw her sad, stressed, stuck…that I understood our similarities. I watched people console her, react to her, and it was like watching a version of myself on television. It became clear that no problem or aspiration was ever as complex as I had made it. To others she handed out short, predictable answers while her mind focused on something she felt no one else could see. From my detached perspective there was no need to feel stuck. To me, her answer was simple, obvious…yet she was so far from choosing it. On the surface of the picture-perfect painting of my future I might have hoped to occupy a position like hers but it was easy to see that the magic and charm of “success” quickly disappears under the cloud of unhappiness.
The One Different Than Me – He was free, and he danced at the faintest sound of music, every time, as if he had no control over the situation. He was touchy and hugged for what seemed like way too many seconds. On the first night I met him, to my reluctance, he insisted on giving me a hand massage and told me he was a hypocrite or “hippy-crite,” as we later decided. “I say I’m a vegetarian, but I’ll eat meat.” He was instantly agitating. When traveling though, you sometimes more leniently accept the bad with the good in order to not be alone. And in accepting him, I had to face the fact that maybe some of my irritation came from something more like jealousy. It was less my annoyance at a trait he possessed and more my frustration with myself. For reasons I’m blind to, I’m more reluctant to be so free, to so openly dance and share and feel and say yes to absolutely anything. Some of the best times I had this summer were with him.
The connection I felt with these people transcended language, age, nationality, opportunity… the connection I felt with these people was a matter of choice and a matter of surrender. When I reduce others to a label it is because I myself am hiding under skin and meaningless descriptions, unwilling to let others in. Unwilling to learn something genuine that would force me to confront my own insecurities, feelings, dreams…
Some people believe that every being you encounter has entered your life for a reason and, whether or not you are of that conviction, it does not hurt to choose to see them in this way—to choose to acknowledge connections, to choose to see yourself in someone else. We are never alone.