Loneliness, solitude and community…
Do not assume that he who seeks to comfort you now, lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life may also have much sadness and difficulty, that remains far beyond yours. Were it otherwise, he would never have been able to find these words.
― Rainer Maria Rilke
Twenty years ago today my father, James Selby, died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was unloading a trailer full of wood for an elderly neighbor, which was totally, utterly in character for him. Jim Selby was always willing to help neighbors or friends.
I will never forget the seemingly endless procession of friends, fellow local businesspeople, and just possibly some guy he’d had a drink with once in a bar who go up on the podium at his memorial service to commend his selflessness, his dependability and his loyalty.
The thing is, all that outpouring of love didn’t make me happy. It made me furious. My parents separated when I was 4 years old. My father hadn’t really known how to deal with me or interact with me before the separation, so being an absentee dad was sort of beyond him. We didn’t figure out how to interact with each other and be a part of each other’s lives until just a couple of years before he died. As a matter of fact, had he lived, we had plans to go out to a Bobby McFerrin concert that next night. I didn’t and still don’t like Bobby McFerrin, but my dad loved him, and he knew how important music was to me so he wanted me to share some music he loved with him and that was enough.
Prior to those last couple of years though he struggled with how to be involved in my life. He never seemed to know how to talk to me or what to talk to me about. He would make plans to do something with me and show up three hours late, or not show up at all. As a kid that was painful in ways I cannot even begin to describe. Any kid who lives through a divorce will tell you that no matter what they know about the state of their parents’ relationship, they feel responsible for the divorce, or at least like they weren’t good enough of a reason for things to be worked on or worked out. Now compound onto that the feeling of rejection you get when your dad doesn’t show up to take you to the movie he promised you’d go to with him.
I will be utterly honest – as a boy I felt unwanted a lot of the time. It wasn’t just the absence of my dad, but that was a big part of it. And any time someone rejected me – getting picked last in the street football game, not getting invited to someone’s birthday party, being told buzz off on the playground or, later on, having a girl make a face at me when I asked her to dance – it just confirmed my certainty that I was defective or unworthy.
So, I didn’t get solitude for a long, long time. I was obsessed with being included, and with the idea that something was only worth doing if I had a companion to do it with. I also didn’t understand the notion of a community – a place where you just belong because you do. I only understood loneliness and rejection.
My father’s death was like the ultimate rejection. While he and I had found a way to know each other and be a part of each other’s lives, we still had a lot of ground to cover, a lot of lost time to make up for, and then *bang* he was gone. The petty, childish part of me that saw affirmation of my worthlessness and undesirability in any slight or mild rejection stood up and loudly blared into my ear – See!!!! See what I’ve been telling you. You have no been bailed on with the ultimate in being bailed on. You cannot fix this one, ever.
This was the ultimate affirmation of my fate as unwanted, unloveable and unsavable.
And that might very well have been the end if it hadn’t been for the truly heroic efforts of some people whose example I have tried to follow in the past several years, who refused to let me sink into myself and my mountain of self-fulfilling self-pity.
See, I didn’t get solitude because the only part of it I could see was being solitary. I equated being alone with loneliness. I had no idea, no concept that these are fundamentally different things. I wasn’t lonely because I was alone. I was lonely because I felt uncomfortable with myself. I judged myself to be unworthy. Rejection, or perceived rejection didn’t confirm my unlovability. My reaction to the rejection or perceived rejection made it impossible for me to love myself and enjoy my own company.
It’s a bit of an old saw, but as they say, no matter where you are, there you are. No matter where you go or who you’re with, you’re also stuck with you. You can be with the most amazing, engaging, funny, cool person on the planet, but if you hate yourself you’re still there with someone you loathe. That was me. I was trying to escape being with me by being with someone else. I never felt confident or comfortable in groups because I felt pretty certain they didn’t want me there. Heck, I didn’t want me there. Why should they be any different?
It’s hard now to conjure up a sense of who I was twenty years ago. In some ways it seems like another person – someone I know well, but who I haven’t seen in a very long time. Am I completely different now? No. I’m still likely to overreact due to a rejection or slight from someone I care for. I’m still not 100% comfortable with solitude, but I’d say the key difference between me today and me twenty years ago is that today I actually seek out solitude or welcome it after a long stretch of being around lots of people. I no longer loathe my own company. I actually think I’m pretty awesome most of the time. And if I feel lonely I don’t run from the feeling.
All things being equal though, I wish my dad were here. I have this feeling he’d be an amazing grandfather, who would always show up on time to take his granddaughter to the movies (and cry at the same scenes I always cry at). I would very much like to have my cake and eat it too. I’d like to be as centered and emotionally healthy as I am today without having had to trod on a path that includes losing my father.
I miss you, Dad.