In Nicole Krauss’s 2005 novel The History of Love, the elderly protagonist Leo Gursky is struggling with loneliness. “I try to make a big point of being seen,” he says. “Sometimes when I’m out, I’ll buy a juice even though I’m not thirsty. If the store is crowded I’ll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction.”
During the holiday season, I become much more aware of the Leo Gurskys in the world: a young man shouting out the words of a book on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street; a frail woman at a pharmacy initiating a conversation with me about her painful physical ailments and repeated applications of Bengay cream. I am also more attuned to the Leo Gursky within myself: a person navigating heavy feelings of loneliness while trying to connect with others and some holiday cheer.
The rest of the year, from January through early November, I actually feel quite comfortable being alone. At home, it’s just me and my dog, Abby. I look forward to seeing friends and my students at the college in lower Manhattan where I teach, but I also enjoy writing from home in the peace and quiet of my apartment. For me, solitude is not loneliness, but a space where I can be fully aware of the myriad ways that all things, myself included, are connected.
This notion of profound interconnectedness, even in isolation, appears throughout Buddhist literature. In the 2nd century, Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism, discussed it in his teachings on sunyata, or emptiness, where he said that the existence of each individual thing relies on the existence of all things. This includes my own self, which is not a permanent and fixed identity, but like all other things a tentative and dynamic amalgam of interconnected elements. So, if I ever find myself alone and feel a pang of fear that I have been cast aside and removed from the world, I can remember that it is not even possible for me to be completely alone. I am inextricably woven into an ever-changing web of connections, many of which are too subtle or complex for me to understand.
Eleven months out of the year, I take solace in this teaching; and yet, during the holidays—a season when family time is both expected and celebrated—loneliness creeps into my life. In the past several years, severe tensions have developed between me and some of my family members. My family has experienced heavy losses, unbearable disappointments, and harsh estrangements. Many of these wounds haven’t yet healed. So far this year, I’ve largely spent the holidays feeling wide-eyed, adrift, and separate from my family.
The pain of this reality often arises in surprising moments. Last week, I was lingering in the produce aisle of the grocery store when I heard the wistful soundtrack from the film Home Alone playing over the store’s speaker system. I suddenly felt isolated from my family, as this was the soundtrack we used to listen to as a family on Christmas morning when I was a child. Deeply saddening thoughts of loneliness echoed in my mind. Another time I was triggered by the sight of a jolly-looking family sitting near me on the train and discussing gift ideas and holiday travel plans, which left me longing for a similar connection.
I often find myself wondering if I can ever recover the sense of joy and togetherness I once felt during the holiday season. When I was a kid, the holidays were a glittery time of year that I looked forward to. I rarely felt alone. I exchanged gifts with my family, and together we decorated our house with soft white lights and electric candles in the windows. We had our share of fights, but in hindsight, they seemed petty and were usually forgotten once my grandmother placed a steaming tray of her homemade lasagna on the dinner table.
These experiences now feel like distant memories. When people string up Christmas lights and trade gift ideas for their loved ones, the longing and aloneness I feel is intense. In those unexpected moments of pain, the teachings on interconnectedness that I’ve studied seem far away, and lose their efficacy.
I think one reason is that they are rather abstract and often difficult to grasp. In his text Open Heart, Open Mind, Tibetan Buddhist monk Tsoknyi Rinpoche describes emptiness by saying it is a “basis of experience [that] is beyond our ability to perceive with our senses or capture in a nice, tidy concept.” So, when I’m feeling my most lonely and withdrawn, trying to imagine myself as part of a connected yet inconceivable reality seems like a tall order. It’s only at a much later time that I am able to reflect on teachings about interdependence and connect them to my own life. Meanwhile, my conditioned story of isolation—which recalls other times in my life when I’ve felt abandoned or disappointed by my family—feels much more real and convincing.
A wiser part of me, however, knows that this narrative is far too small and simple. It does not honor the complexity and vastness of my life and the many connections with the world around me. I’m often left wondering how I can bridge this gap between the great truth I know and the painful misperception that I feel.
Many years ago, at the end of my first semester in college, I wrote a personal essay that described my experience of meandering the streets of New York and glancing into other people’s apartment windows from the sidewalk. I described how lonely I felt when I caught a glimpse of a family cooking dinner together and decorating their home for the holidays. I was 17 years old and living away from my family for the first time, so my piece was heavy with my own sadness and perceived separation from my family. The writing was truthful, but it felt imbalanced. I didn’t know how to revise it.
After my professor read my essay, she told me that the word “revision” means to re-see, to look again, or to shift perspective. She also asked me what my essay could become if I both honored the loneliness I felt and expanded my gaze into a more vast space. What would I see if I took another look, not away from the loneliness, but deeper into it? What was my loneliness trying to tell me about what I saw?
To revise my writing, I moved closer to the very experiences from which I felt removed. I imagined that the family I noticed was listening to jazz and sipping cider as they cooked green beans and mashed sweet potatoes. During dinner, the kids snuck table food to the dog while the adults playfully argued about which aunt baked the most delicious cookies. My attempts to imagine these strangers’ lives and relate to their experiences—while envisioning the kind of people I longed for in my life—inspired my own potential for connection.
In the time since college, writing has continued to offer a way for me to explore teachings of interdependence that I am still trying to understand. By composing both essays and stories, I explore relationships between myself and others, both real and imagined. Another part of my writing practice—and my spiritual practice—is the act of observing and paying very close attention to the world and unpacking the ways in which I am intimately connected to what I see. Through this lens, I can recognize my own experience in others. Now, when the holidays roll around and I spot the Leo Gurskys, I know their unconventional or surprising efforts to reach others likely comes from a place of hurt, separation, and loneliness.
Another way that I practice this is to consider all of the familiar sights and sounds in my own life as reminders of just how deeply I am interwoven into the world. None of these negate loneliness; they embrace it as a small part of a much larger and unknown narrative. So, while I am the loneliness I sometimes feel, I am also the joy of my dog, Abby, as she romps through the fresh snow at sunrise. I am also the sweet blueberry jam I spread on my toast each morning. I am my memories of learning to play Greensleeves on the piano, and I am the soft glow of the white lights strung around my childhood home. I am the cold drops of rain that drip from my fingertips, and I am the last leaf to fall from the oak tree outside my window. I am all of the losses I have ever experienced, just as much as I am the echo of my mailman’s laugh down my Harlem block on a frigid December afternoon.
For a long time, I believed that loneliness was the painful result of the wider network trying to reach me and failing. Or, even worse, abandoning me altogether. I am starting to understand that this story is also far too limited. While the interdependence of all things is ever-shifting, it is also embracing. In Open Heart, Open Mind, Tsoknyi Rinpoche also casts a shining light on this notion. “The actual teachings on emptiness imply an infinitely open space that allows for anything to appear, change, disappear, and reappear,” he writes. “The basic meaning of emptiness, in other words, is openness, or potential. At the basic level of our being, we are ‘empty’ of definable characteristics. We aren’t defined by our past, our present, or our thoughts and feelings about the future. We have the potential to experience anything.”
Several days ago, just as the afternoon sun was beginning to set, I heard a familiar noise outside: the sound of my beloved elderly neighbor, Ron, sweeping leaves off the sidewalk in front of my apartment. My dog Abby’s ears perked up in an instant. Her love for Ron is deep and true.
She jumped up and stood by my side, her long tail wagging. Let’s go out! she seemed to be saying. I glanced out the window and sighed. It looked like it was about to rain. I was also entrenched in sadness; something heavy was trying to convince me to stay inside and sulk. I looked again at Abby, this time right into her pleading eyes. The invitation to connect—not only with her, but also with my neighbor and the cold, fresh air outside—was immediate and clear.
“Okay,” I said, rising from my chair. “Let’s go!” I grabbed her leash and she bounded toward the hallway. Together we walked down the stairs, opened the door, and took a step into the world.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.