freelance writer & illustrator

Not Everyone Can Bootstrap Their Way Out of Loneliness

December 5, 2018

 

My life today is very different from what it was three years ago. I was not yet a law school drop-out, my girlfriend, B, and I hadn’t moved in together, and I hadn’t even considered pursuing a career in writing. My life was still defined, in large part, by my ability and desire to make bold, impactful decisions when it came to my education, career trajectory, and the long-term relationship I was and am still in.

 

Despite the lack of structure that characterized my life at twenty-five, however, I had several close friends whom I’d known for years. At times, more than I knew what to do with. Every once in a while, B and I would back out of plans with friends, stating simply that we were tired. Often, we’d find ourselves busy three, sometimes four, consecutive weekends into the future, and the occasional reschedule seemed to be our only recourse from what was a very active, but sometimes exhausting, social life.

 

Which, of course, is not a horrible problem to have. I especially understand just how not-horrible it is now that I am twenty-eight and it has significantly devolved. While having drinks with my friends and waking up with a headache that promises to lay me out for a day (or more) has lost most of its appeal, it does feel strange to have a mostly-inactive social life, especially when I reflect on my formerly close friendships.

 

In early 2018, I laid one of my oldest friendships to rest. Suffice it to say we’d been through a good deal together in the decade and a half we’d known each other, so I found it easy to read our initial disagreements as one-offs, rather than as symptoms of the legitimate, irresolvable discord that existed between us. It took me two years to acknowledge just how frequently they were occurring, that they were often of the same nature, and that they almost always ended in resentful standoffs. But they didn’t start off that way. At first, the signs of this discord were small—or at least, they seemed to be against the backdrop of our fifteen-year friendship.

 

For example, a couple of years ago, I was working a nine-to-five that I hated due to its tense office environment. After I shared with a coworker that my father is from Iraq, she remarked that it was for the best that people from “over there” wouldn’t be allowed to come to the U.S. under Trump, since they were the “ones doing most of the bombings.” When I told my friend about this incident, he responded that it was ridiculous for her to have said that to me. He reasoned that the U.S. shouldn’t villainize people like my family when there are “actual terrorists” to worry about.

Though I initially brushed off my friend’s comment, over the years, others like it continued to roll in. Eventually, I was left feeling resentful more often than I was able to appreciate the other, positive aspects of our friendship.

 

During the last year and a half of our friendship, this feeling intensified. My current friends thought B was great before she came out to them as trans, and they continued to after the fact. The friend above, however, had a difficult time concealing his discomfort with her trans-ness. When B initially expressed interest in transitioning, he remarked that she “shouldn’t feel pressured” to change the way she dressed. Half a year later, his unwillingness to grapple with his own misgivings about gender persisted: even after I’d casually but firmly made the request, he failed to use her pronouns and did not take kindly to being corrected. We couldn’t see eye-to-eye on the subject, and B and I decided her comfort was more important than staving off loneliness.

 

Many of my other friends have been supportive, and when we get together, we have a great time. Then, there are other friends still: though they may not possess the same bigoted sorts of dispositions (however quiet) as does my friend above, our gaps in understanding each other have become too great, or those that have long existed continue to widen, and we don’t mesh like we used to. Whether my friends wound up feeling judged, or I wound up feeling exhausted, the process of trying to explain and understand one another quickly became painful for all parties involved.

 

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For the better part of the last year, I’d convinced myself that my slimmed-down circle of friends was the product of my life experiences—that it was, in fact, unique to me. Then I read many times that this was simply not so. More and more recent research suggests that young people today are lonelier than ever. In line with this research, in August, Vox published an essay entitled “If you’re wondering why you’ve lost friends in adulthood, this is probably why.” After reading Jackie Luo’s solution-driven piece, I began contemplating the possibility that I’d caused my own friendlessness—that, by way of some defect in my personality, which I hadn’t detected and remedied, I’d visited my loneliness upon myself.

 

My anxious desire to determine how I’d gotten to this point wasn’t sated by my brief time on Twitter, where the occasional tweet floated onto my timeline, counseling followers on the proper ways (or really, way) to maintain their friendships. Like Luo’s essay, the authors of such tweets had fully embraced the popular adage, “you get what you put in,” in all its broad-brush glory, at least as friendships were concerned. The prevailing sentiment undergirding these tweets is, if you want and expect to maintain a friendship with someone, then you must put in the necessary effort. This notion is, on its face, as fair as it is straight-forward.

 

This idea is more or less the thesis of Luo’s essay. She speaks to the reader: “How many big life events do we miss before we start saying we used to be friends? Probably fewer than we think. Flakiness has its costs, and we often don’t realize them until it’s too late.” Aside from relying on the assumption that those who “flake” on their friends will invariably wind up regretting their woefully shortsighted behavior, Luo wraps up the piece with three paragraphs that hammer home the foundation of her argument: her personal experience. Luo writes, in part:

 

None of my closest friendships were forged solely because we had so much in common or it was convenient. It was because we prioritized each other…There were days when someone would post in our group chat that everything was awful and terrible, and we’d organize immediately to cancel our plans and gather somewhere and listen to them vent over dinner and a bottle of wine.

 

These relationships are some of the most rewarding parts of my life, and they didn’t just happen. We built them. So the next time you’re faced with the question of whether to show up or not show up for someone, be conscious about how that choice impacts your relationship. Because, for better or worse, it will.

 

An almost invariable byproduct of championing bootstrapping is that rather than offering external information that would contextualize their points, those who do it fall into the habit of relying on personal anecdotes to counsel those who (usually) haven’t asked to be counseled. Though often invoked in arguably far more political matters (and often by those who lack an apparent vested interest in such subjects), when it comes to emotional and mental wellness, the promotion of bootstrapping crops up just as well. Whether this usually-ineffective guidance is foisted onto personal or political situations (where there can be and often is overlap), it is frequently founded on the claim that if the listener would just do what the speaker did, their problems would cease.

 

The speaker, of course, almost undoubtedly has no clue what the people they seek to guide are experiencing (think of people who insist that the solution to homelessness is just “getting a job”). This near-certainty is evidenced by the fact that the audience they are addressing has not typically acted in accordance with the idea they have put forth—and not due to some sort of collective moral failing or character flaw on their part, or because the idea put forth by the speaker hadn’t occurred to them, but rather, because they cannot or do not want to. In the case at hand, the advice being given targets the personal: “I wanted to be friends with someone, so I told them so, showed up when we made plans, and a year later, we are best friends.”

 

While some studies have linked the current loneliness crisis to younger generations’ increasing attachment to their smart devices and social media, others, to their waning adherence to old-fashioned values, and others, still, to their insecure attachment to keeping busy, it seems few, if any, have entertained a different, though equally contemporary, possibility: incompatibility.

 

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A quick Google search will yield numerous essays by Black and brown authors about the uncomfortable and, at times, down-right painful interactions they’ve had with white friends and loved ones. Another search will turn up pieces on what it’s like to be the only LGBTQ+ person in a group of cisgender-heterosexual friends, like this incredibly frank GQ essay wherein the author describes their complicated relationship with loneliness as a gay person. These essays illustrate the benefits of the increase in access to LGBTQ+ networks that has resulted from the rise of technology.

 

Some authors relay their stories in order to communicate what they feel is their imperative to educate white people about their benevolent racism. Others, like Reni Eddo-Lodge, who writes on the subject in this expansive blog post, are unwilling to resign themselves to a life of emotional labor and resolve not to interact with white people in this respect. And each choice is fine, so long as it suits the person making it. However, it is important to note that such are choices that an increasing number of folks are being forced to make when it comes to cultivating and maintaining friendships.

 

According to a GLAAD survey published in 2017, Millennials are significantly more likely to openly identify as LGBTQ+ than are members of previous generations. Twenty percent identify as LGBTQ+, compared to seven and twelve percent of the Boomer generation and Gen X, respectively. Moreover, at twelve percent, twice as many Millennials identify as trans or gender non-conforming as did members of Gen X. In early 2018, a report published by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program revealed that, in contrast to the majority-white (68.4%) pre-Millennial population, forty-four percent of the U.S.’s Millennials are nonwhite. Given that the group is comprised of seventy-five million people, this percentage is far from negligible.

 

In an effort to prove that the general population continues to grow more “accepting” of marginalized communities as time marches on, some folks cite statistics suggesting more people are comfortable with members of these communities than are not. (While a statistic is hardly necessary to take our country’s temperature in the tolerance department, it’s worth noting that a 2017 GLAAD survey showed that acceptance of queer people in the U.S. was down four percent from the previous year. Moreover, a November 2018 FBI report showed that hate crimes had increased seventeen percent in the last year, with most targeting people who are Black and/or queer—though these numbers are likely severe underestimations.)

 

Often enough, folks who identify as allies hinge their beliefs about racism, queerphobia, and classism on binaries: acceptance versus rejection, tolerance versus intolerance, and so on. An unfortunate, yet predictable, extension of such binary thinking is the belief that those to whom one serves as an ally are one’s educators. As Ryan Blocker explains in his article on the importance of white people understanding how racism impacts their communities, this mode of relating—of understanding oneself as a student and the “other” as a teacher—renders the former a passive party while continuing a tradition of placing the responsibility of being the world’s problem-solver on the latter.

 

 

This experience is likely shared by many others. I, of course, am not claiming that people of different genders, races, and so on can’t have close, lasting friendships. (One of my closest friends is white and in a heterosexual relationship; however, because she is an attentive and compassionate listener, I never feel that these differences are imposing in our relationship.) I’m also not saying that any person who is or wants to be friends with someone of marginalized identity needs to be ideologically pure, since such a feat is impossible, anyway.

 

These differences do, however, require acknowledgment. And the expectation that those of marginalized identity and experience explain both the problems of marginalization and their solutions, coupled with defensiveness and anger, does not equate to friendship and true platonic intimacy.

 

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As I surely have to them, many of my current close friends have said offensive things to me. However, I haven’t gotten angry or felt resentful of or less close to them after the fact, because their attitudes neither demanded that I remedy their ignorance, nor that I placate their guilt.

 

My discomfort with my former close friends is not simply due to my aversion to spending time with their friends’ friends who are visiting from Georgia with armloads of jokes about ISIS and the war in Afghanistan, or to my unwillingness to explain that my girlfriend and I are fatigued from cis-hetero- and homonormative hangouts. I don’t think my former friends are bad people. But our friendships as they were, for me, have become untenable, and our differences have played an indelible role.

 

Our related experiences, interests, lifestyles, and values have prevented us from seeing eye-to-eye one too many times, and in ways that are too great for me to reconcile with. And though it is a healthy one, I understand that I have to live with the consequences of my choice to leave these friendships behind. I am not in search of a utopic, effort-free friendship; I know that friendships take work. But like any other relationship, those who are lonely for reasons like the ones I’ve discussed in this essay deserve at least some of the ease of companionship that comes with meeting and meshing platonically with another soul.

 

My forlornness over my lack of close friendships and my keeping my former friends at arm’s length are mutually exclusive phenomena; my life has changed in such a way that I no longer feel comfortable with my old friends, and after several years of very thoughtful consideration, I’ve reasoned that gradually distancing myself from them—rather than cutting them out of my life entirely—makes the most sense. I’m not angry. I do not wish to never speak to them again. But continuing to cultivate friendships with them would not be in my best interest, and ultimately, my well-being is my top priority.

 

If anything about the transformations we undergo as we move through life is certain, it’s that such transformations are not created equal. Though Luo and I are both Millennials, my transformations may be very different from Luo’s, and Luo’s from the acquaintance that never quite became Luo’s friend. However, that I and others like me choose not to cultivate friendships with others does not mean that we have failed—that we are not allowed to wax mournful about being lonely.

 

Even if my one-time close friendships didn’t end up working out as we all got older and changed, I am hopeful. Hopeful that eventually, I will meet people that I do mesh with—to whom I don’t have to explain so much to.

 

And not because a been-there-done-that essay told me that I would have already met them, if only I’d just tried a little harder.

 

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Selected by Medium Staff as recommended reading in Relationships in February 2019.

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