The Art of Intimacy
“You can talk about it, or you can be about it.” — Unknown
Some time ago, I read “The Opposite of Loneliness,” by Marina Keegan. The 22 year-old writing prodigy, killed in a car accident upon graduation from Yale, opened her award-winning essay with:
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.
To find the word for the opposite of loneliness, we first need to define the word itself. I used to believe that loneliness was feeling alone, like if you had moved to a new city or started a new job and maybe the others would look at you like you’d grown a second head, a curious interloper from another race or planet thrust into a foreign culture. That’s almost there.
But what about real loneliness? The overwhelming sense of being alone despite a venerable cornucopia of people you could call to knock back a cocktail or 12? And then you stumble home at 3 a.m. and choke half to death on your own self-loathing — each early morning ending exactly as the day began, no closer to those you’d gallivanted around with, and your cat silently judging you? Grand loneliness disguised as togetherness. The long con of community.
Loneliness isn’t feeling like you don’t really know anybody. It’s feeling like nobody could ever really know you.
You speak and receive faint nods of approval, off-hand laughter, a pithy response to a zinger or outside-the-box thought. You share a common ground, a common goal or a common interest. You disperse to bond another day. You wonder why it isn’t clicking. Your relationship with the world, a car in second gear, a fire-hose bulging and bursting from the inside-out, yet a mere mist when sprayed at its target.
Guarded communication is risk mitigation applied to social settings. It’s a series of quick-win verbal habits that are designed to be snackable content IRL. Everyone loves a biting wit, a compliment or good news. Bring enough of it to enough people and make them feel warm and fuzzy all over. Oral slap-singles are a near bulletproof way to be likable.
And surprisingly awkward. Here’s the stinging truth: A lot of likable people are completely lonely. A homeless man who smiles, says “I love that shirt,” and wishes you “a blessed day” before retreating to the solace of his overpass shelter.
And so we craft these gleefully-burgeoning social networks, and over-share ourselves into oblivion, in the hopes that somebody, anybody, will relate to us. Hell, in the past, I’ve widened my network to one, two, three thousand people that I’ve considered friends. Hundreds of likes on a blog post about extreme beauty or success or distrust of the government or faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Surely, in so much good company, the loneliness shall fade. Especially when the words are so good and ring so true that they cannot, they shall not, be ignored.
But when reaction is currency, and reaction is cursory, self-loathing and self-doubt and the other two horsemen of the self-pocalypse ride into our virtual town. And you realize what you’ve become is a micro-broadcaster, a one-way mouthpiece where despite your best efforts to reveal your true self to others, what your writing and posting and taste in YouTube videos say about you is, ultimately, that you’re worth listening to.
“You’re so vulnerable,” the chorus will sing. “It takes so much strength, courage and guts to bleed onto the keyboard for all to see.”
But it isn’t vulnerability if it’s shared with everyone. A knight who draws down his sword and removes his armor isn’t liable to die if he’s not in the throes of the joust. He’s a mere layman no different than the blacksmith or jester.
Being worth listening to, as it turns out, is poles apart from being worth knowing.
Keeping up an actual friendship, one that’s ultimately rewarding for both parties, requires resources. We all have a pretty fixed amount of social capital that’s alloted for distribution in a deeper way than taking 15 seconds to “like” and comment and interact. To be someone worth knowing requires real human interaction: conversing beyond quips and quick-hits, seeing and sharing activities beyond Buzzfeed links, expressing differences, changing minds, passionately defending the points that define our character, coming through when it matters, asking for (and offering) favors. This is what makes this life worth living. We crave more connecting — not more connections. Stumbling home after 3 a.m. exhausting every truth you’ve got in your arsenal, armor laid at the feet of your social combatant.
The opposite of loneliness is intimacy — the act of revealing your whole self to someone else and having them reciprocate. It is something you can only do one-on-one, face-to-face, soul-to-soul. When we stop taking hacks at softball pitches and start swinging for the fences, our acts and ideas towering over the walls we’ve built to protect ourselves. It’s an act of love, an act of self-love, and an act of defiance all the same. It’s gritty, emotional, raw, unfiltered, unabashed, unpretentious and unguarded. It’s more than talking about things together. It’s being about things together. And you’ll get so good at being, so good at living, so good at connecting that you will never need to use your fancy words again — no matter how likable or vulnerable.
For what are we in this world if not connectable, interlocking parts? What is this joy, suffering, talent, wisdom if not to be shared and imparted? How much has gone wasted or unremedied due to an inability for intimacy, our own tight-lipped tendencies? A soul is not a silo, a mind is not a mine. We worship, learn, aid, sing, watch, call, visit, fuck, create, talk, love, try, read and write to bring ourselves closer. To make whole what we lack in the emptiness of loneliness. Each deeper connection creates deeper character, with more room to grow, more to lose and more to become. A heart unbroken is a life unwagered. A dream undashed is a life unlived. To play safe, to play solo, is to play a fool’s game — we may find success in rising above the rest, but we may only win by lifting up others.
The road to emptiness is paved in being likable. Let your heart hang out the window to dry. Let it be warmed, broken, run over by a semi, lifted, toyed with, embraced. Make enemies as easily as you make friends. Find yourself in the cross-hairs of the black-and-white world of courage and watch the world dare to stand with you.
And in that moment, laugh, for you’ll die knowing you’ve beaten back the grey twilight of loneliness and found yourself in the company of those you’ve challenged to take you as you are, face-to-face, soul-to-soul, arm-in-arm. Savor that feeling of two (or more!) vessels for unchecked, unabashed, unmitigated joy reciprocating that truth, love and splendor between each other, a game of emotional and intellectual catch where neither drops the ball.
We don’t have a word for that feeling yet, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.