Loneliness in the City

By Dan Moore

This piece originally appeared in The Bold Italic.

Late on the night after Thanksgiving, I had a conversation with an uncle I love dearly but see rarely. The conversation was about loneliness, some form of which we’d both confessed to having struggled with recently. (My uncle had just moved to a new city, and I’ve lived with varying forms of mental illness my whole life.) Near the end of the conversation, after we’d admitted that loneliness is difficult to parse, my uncle nevertheless asked me to describe, if I could, what it feels like to be lonely and living in San Francisco today. After all, he ventured to say, loneliness must feel different in a place that’s so dynamic, full of so many interesting people and possessing of so many ever-evolving opportunities for finding and sustaining community and friendship.

At first, the question struck me as ridiculous — how could one person, familiar with only their personal variants of mental pain, categorize what loneliness, in its constellations, feels like in a certain place and time?

“I don’t know,” I said. “Same here as everywhere else, probably.”

Our conversation ended soon thereafter. In the hours that followed, however, as I lay awake on the couch in the living room, the subatomic grumble of old people sleeping audible through the walls, this idea that loneliness might really be different in the San Francisco of 2015 than in the Phoenix of my uncle’s youth, or even in the East Bay of this same year, clung to me like a spider web you’ve walked through in the dark: persistent, infuriating and impossible to shake.

The next day I was back in the city, walking down Polk Street. The sky was a light, Tahoe blue. The temperature of the breeze was at once crisp and comforting. And the flowers in the trees on the sidewalk unfurled with bright defiance. But instead of feeling appreciative for how unseasonably alive the city seemed on this early winter afternoon, I found myself overwhelmed by the number of people walking around. And all in groups! Outside the restaurants and through the windows of the bars and passing me on the sidewalk, quickening weather patterns of young, healthy people streamed by, all smiling and occupied, all engaged in conversations that were likely trivial but that seemed, in passing, unspeakably consequential. A kickball team in matching neon shirts tumbled out of Nick’s. Couples floated by, pushing strollers or holding hands. I kept walking. But in trying to avoid feeling intimidated — in keeping my head up — I became oddly aware of the hundreds of thousands of windows lining the street, up and down the hills, pouring toward the horizon, a rolling sea of square frames containing lives I’d never know, stories I’d never hear and members of communities I’d never be a part of. And like a rising volume — like a dental drill being lowered closer to the periphery of my consciousness — a wandering, paranoid suspicion that the reason I’d never know those communities was that I’m actually inferior in some important, unknowable way began swelling inside my head. I stopped on the corner of Polk and Geary. The windows and their symmetrical infinities leered at me like square black eyes on the faces of concrete giants. The torrents of people walking by seemed to approach and pass with increasing authority, like angry rivers swelling with water. I dropped my head, shoved my hands in my pocket and started home. When I got there, I closed the front door behind me, drew the blinds, and sat in my room alone, something like a drug addict in the middle of a bad trip.

Short, intense tornadoes of self-consciousness, made paradoxically more volatile by all that makes San Francisco so beautiful: this is how, over the following few weeks, I started describing San Francisco loneliness to the friends and family whom I routinely reach out to in times of doubt. “A tornado,” I said, my uncle’s question in mind. That’s what it’s like. A momentary tornado of cognitive dissonance that touches ground and consumes your awareness, attention and capacity for reason, just like that. Snap.

But very quickly this description felt overdramatic. Tornadoes devastate communities, my friends reminded me — loneliness only dissolves the self.

What I was discovering, I think, in considering my uncle’s question, is that loneliness is terribly difficult to talk about. There are a few reasons why I now think this is so. One is that it’s hard to delineate loneliness. As a feeling it doesn’t offer an objective, easy-to-identify cause. As noted by John Cacioppo, director of the Social Psychology Doctoral Program at the University of Chicago, “Being with others doesn’t guarantee protection from feelings of loneliness.”

Oftentimes, it seems, attempting to identify causes of loneliness only leads to distractions. There is a conception common to purveyors of the Internet, for instance, that my generation — many members of which live in cities like San Francisco — is somehow more predisposed to loneliness than previous generations. The reason why hinges on the belief that our dependence on smart technology has hindered our attention spans and, in turn, our ability to form genuine emotional connections with other people. Or something like that.

While there may be some validity to the assertion — this recent study of Facebook users, for example, found that the amount of time you spend on social networks is inversely related to how happy you feel throughout the day — loneliness varies in cause and nature. As do people and the way they confront, process and cope with their mental shit. Loneliness, for me, has never been a product of being actually, physically alone. Rather, I feel lonely as a result of succumbing to the sirens of what David Foster Wallace so perfectly dubbed “The Bad Thing”: that amalgamation of anxiety, paranoia and self-doubt that accumulates silently and in waves and which, by nature, tends to be self-reinforcing and recursive, feeding off of the very feelings of guilt and worthlessness it produces. This is the tornado.

But this is probably not true of other people. I know nothing of the loneliness of the old man who lives in the apartment across the way from mine, who smokes a cigarette on his balcony alone every night, his house always quiet. I know nothing of the loneliness of the woman who sleeps each night in front of my office in SOMA atop a bed of cardboard. And neither does Facebook. Loneliness cannot be so easily explicated.

Another, more personal reason it’s difficult to talk about loneliness is that it’s hard to talk about being lonely without feeling, at the same time, pathetically privileged and whiny. Especially in San Francisco, where up and down Polk Street and in Dolores Park and around bonfires on Ocean Beach everyone seems to be so visibly content with where they are and what they’re doing. The idea that you might not enjoy being here seems insulting. Like, oh, this place, this opportunity — what? It’s not good enough for you? Quit bitching. Or get the fuck out. No one wants to invite that sort of criticism upon themselves, even if the concerns they’re voicing, the unintelligible pain they’re trying to articulate, is genuine.

But it’s for this reason, I think, ultimately, that feeling lonely in San Francisco is different from feeling lonely in other places, or during other instances in time. To feel lonely in San Francisco today is to feel, truly, like there’s something wrong with you. Something precluding you from abandoning your apprehensions and putting yourself out there and utilizing the remarkable resources at your disposal to meet the interesting people you know to be sitting in the restaurants and bars and parks you walk by and through every day. And it’s to then feel confidence in your ability to even just interact with other people erode, like the earth at Lands End. This feeling is reinforced, again sort of paradoxically, by the unavoidable and brilliant beauty of this place.

So here is how I eventually answered my uncle’s query (something I did via email):

“I don’t mean to imply that San Francisco is an inherently lonely place,” I wrote. “And I don’t want you to think I’m impossibly lonely or unhappy living here. I love this city. I love the friends I have. I love my girlfriend. But I do, at times, get lonely here. And I do believe that feeling lonely in San Francisco is different from feeling lonely elsewhere. Now, my thoughts on this are likely incomplete, irrelevant and maybe even flat-out wrong. I’m also not by any means the first person to offer their opinion about what loneliness in San Francisco feels like — and those perspectives and opinions are necessary to consider in trying to form a more complete picture about loneliness here. But here’s what I got: to feel lonely in San Francisco is to feel like you’ve missed something. It’s to hate witnessing so many other happy-looking people in the parks and on the street doing what you know you should be doing. But more than anything else, I think, to feel lonely here is to feel, well, inadequate. Like there’s something wrong with you. The fact that there’s not doesn’t really matter. In fact, sometimes it just makes shit worse. Does that make sense? Hope so. Either way, you were right.”

A few days later, it was Christmas, and my family had reconvened once again at my parents’ house — a home full of people I love and appreciate having in my life. Right off the bat I asked my uncle if this time we could avoid such depressing topics of conversation as loneliness. He consented, and during our late nights together that weekend we instead discussed happier things, like the most recent Republican presidential debate.

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