Are you Alone or are you Lonely?

Are you unsure of the difference? Readers, let me help you out with a personal example.

Way back in grade one, I had just moved to Abu Dhabi from Kerala. I was enrolled to a completely alien school. My parents walked me in. A teacher ushered me into a classroom. It was break and everyone was playing around, not like we used to in primary back home in Kerala. No, I kid you not when I say they played around but somehow appeared disciplined while at it. Everyone spotless in their clean and ironed uniform. The very fabric seeming thicker and smoother than what I was used to. Thirty tiny humans around me.  My classmates didn’t at first acknowledge me. So I listened, and I heard fluent English, like music. They seemed perfect. You see, my primary self had rudimentary knowledge of English. She could write. But oh, she couldn’t speak like them. Soon a feeling washed over her. She felt completely out of place. She felt completely alone.

She would gradually become one of them, learn the things they did and said, and learn some better. Soon it was high school. The mid teenage years. And there I was, getting the marks and hanging out with the popular kids. Teachers liked me. Everything seemed perfect. But there I was waking up every day, putting on a mask. Pretending to be someone who I wasn’t but someone who those kids liked.  There I was, in every morning conversation where they huddled together. Feeling like the misfit. The one who was okay to make fun off occasionally. The one who was okay to be left behind rhetorically when the newest school gossip struck or literally when they went to try out for a dance competition. The expendable of sorts.

At each of those parties, at each of those class trips, at each day’s end when they grouped together (It’s a thing they did) before the buses left, I’d be surrounded by 7 people, their voices drowning each other out. Each of those times that feeling would wash over me. I felt completely out of place. I felt alone.

Gradually I’d learn to hone my people skills. I would find people who would become my best friends for years to come. And then I shifted back home to India. I would by my own will attend coaching classes and join a residential school far away from home. 

The school was big and beautiful. But you know what was bigger and more beautiful? The school library. An important character in this story minds you. First day at the hostel and I realize most of the kids have already got in. I get curious glances as I move in. There were study hours at night and a break in between. I would watch strangers get together, introduce themselves and talk. Smile and laugh. Meanwhile in class, it was more or less the same procedure plus the boys. Oh and some days scholars who had gone to school since kindergarten and was basically joined at the hip. Oh were they disciplined. There was pride in their gait and a smile on their faces. All this while I would watch and listen.  And so I listened and I heard fluent Malayalam, like music. I’d hear the cultural references and movie references I wouldn’t get. The taunts of “Oh she’s an NRI”.  And soon enough there was that feeling. I felt completely out of place. Amidst 29 other kids, I felt completely alone. I spent a lot of time in those 2 years at that library. I knew every nook and corner, and almost everyone else knew where to find Shwetha if she wasn’t in class. It was how I successfully avoided people.

You and I can tell a lot of stories like that. Feeling alone and avoiding people. Right?

No!

That’s where our mistake lies. A common misuse of the word ‘alone’. I wasn’t alone. No I was always surrounded by people in these situations. What I was, was lonely.

You can be famous, rich and popular. Essentially, you can have money, fame, power, beauty, social skills, a great personality and you can still be lonely. And that’s because loneliness is part of biology. Hungers tells you to eat. What does loneliness tell you? It’s a sign of feeling rejected. Feeling excluded. Not feeling the social vibe of the group around you. It tells you that you need to connect with other people. Because if you don’t, loneliness can kill. Not kidding, it’s actually bad for health. Like radioactive bad. When loneliness becomes a regular, you avoid social situations, sit away from people, avoid calls from friends, and enter social situations already having decided how it would go. You try to avoid getting hurt and by not opening up or avoid opportunities to be around.

Loneliness is a normal universal feeling. But you have to accept the feeling. Self-examine and eliminate the cause. Reach out to someone. For you or for them. Try something new. Speak to people you don’t usually. Grab a coffee. Maybe nothing will come of it and maybe, just maybe something might. Readers, we are not alone. It’s hard to be in this overcrowded, way too connected world.

So, Are you alone or are you lonely?

More importantly, will you do something about it if you are?

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Shwetha Nair
Shwetha Nair
Do you live to read or read to live? Figure with me
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