I’m not an expert in making friends; I’m an expert in fighting loneliness

Yesterday I closed by writing about loneliness. Now, I could wax poetic about the nature of this loneliness, but one of my favorite passages in all of literature (it’s from Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal) puts it much better than I could:

Being alone is not the most awful thing in the world. You visit your museums and cultivate your interests and remind yourself how lucky you are not to be one of those spindly Sudanese children with flies beading their mouths. You make out to-do lists—reorganise linen cupboard, learn two sonnets. You dole out little treats to yourself—slices of icecream cake, concerts at Wigmore Hall. And then, every once in a while, you wake up and gaze out of the window at another bloody daybreak, and think, I cannot do this anymore. I cannot pull myself together again and spend the next fifteen hours of wakefulness fending off the fact of my own misery.

People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in a Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her handwriting was the best thing about her. But about the drip, drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night, because you can’t bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, “Goodness, you’re a quick reader!” when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out. They don’t know what it is to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor’s hand on your shoulder sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin. I have sat on park benches and trains and school room chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing to the ground. About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.

When I read this passage, several years ago, I cried, because I knew exactly what that felt like. When I wrote yesterday about the three categories of adults, I wrote with authority, because I’ve been in all of them. And sometimes the switches between them have been so rapid that they’ve taken me utterly by surprise. I’ve gone from cities where I knew hundreds of people to cities where I knew nobody. I’ve had the small, intimate group of friends that fell apart and left me with nothing. And I’ve sat or stood for hours in parties and in convention halls where everybody knew everybody else, and where nobody wanted to know me, and I have wept. I have felt, sometimes for years at a time, as if my friendship was something so worthless I couldn’t even give it away, and I’ve had the other experience—I’ve turned down friendship overtures from desperately lonely people who I just didn’t click with.

But I’m not an expert at making friends. I’m really not. I’ve met experts. People who start off as the funniest and wittiest people you’ve met in your life, and then, in a second, focus on you such an intense wave of compassion and interest that you feel connected to them like you’ve felt connected to few other people on this earth.

That’s not me. I’m sometimes witty, but I’m also frequently tongue-tied, and I still embarrass myself all the time. I can’t even say that I’m good at making friends. It gets harder and harder as you get older, and I’m only thirty-one. If I ever move (I currently live in San Francisco), I’ll have to start over just like anybody else, and I might once again feel the loneliness that Zoe Heller wrote about.

What I am is an expert in fighting loneliness. And in my years of struggling against this enemy, I have learned a few things, and my intention with this series of blog posts is to try to convey them to other people in an orderly and systematic way.

These posts are intended for a person who wants to expand their social circle, make more friends, and make better, more intimate friends. Some of the advice will be things you’ve heard before (yes, joining some sort of organization is often a good way to meet people). Other advice will be radically different (for the love of God, don’t go to Meetup groups—you can’t build a robust social network by socializing only with other lonely people).

A lot of this stuff will be just as applicable for people who have lots of friends. The holy grail of friendship is intimacy: finding a person who you feel an enduring bond with; somebody with whom you can share your feeling and rely upon. For years I knew how to make casual friends but not how to find intimates. However in the last year or two I’ve started to crack the code on this question, and that’s why I finally feel qualified to write this post.

My next post is going to sound like a misnomer, because it’s about the importance of ditching friends. More specifically, it’s about the biggest barrier to making the right friends…

Anyways, more on that tomorrow.

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