I lived in England once. For a year after college, I studied English literature in one of the oldest university towns in the world. Many unexpected things happened that year, but the loneliness was perhaps the most surprising.
I had studied abroad in the same city during college just a couple of years before and my previous experience had been full of friends. I lived in a house with twenty people I went to college with in the States, and we were all venturing together.
England “take 2” was completely different. I arrived with three enormous suitcases and few acquaintances. The town was full of familiar streets, but strange faces. I forgot knowing how to get around did not mean I would know actual people— the thing that really matters in the end.
I had felt lonely before. I had felt like I had no friends before. My entire 8th grade year, for example. But this type of loneliness was different. There was an added layer to it: I was a foreigner.
We, as Americans, know that our culture is influential, so when we travel abroad, we expect to be understood by the natives. This does not happen. I didn’t feel like British people got me, and I certainly didn’t get them. We spoke the same language, but the social nuances, cultural references, and even their priorities when it came to things like beauty and education left me far outside their walls trying hard to listen in. I couldn’t understand, and I was consistently failing.
That is what made my time in England so rich and so full—feeling lonely. At first, I sat in the loneliness. I spent a lot of time by myself and felt sad. “Nobody gets me here…I can’t understand my professor’s Irish accent…I don’t know how to find anything in these supermarkets…”
It was a lot of that for a while until the day I had a brave moment, my turning point: I invited people over for dinner. They were acquaintances from class, one from England and two from South Africa, and they came to my house one night and taught me how to cook curry and we talked for a long time. I felt like myself again. I felt like I might survive this country and that there was indeed a way to understand each other, maybe not on a national level, but at least on a human level.
There are few things I champion more than spending an extended amount of time abroad. It forces loneliness upon you unlike most life scenarios. But I know we don’t have to travel far to feel like aliens. This world is a long and spread out Tower of Babel. It can feel like no one speaks your language, and your own home, school or workplace may be what’s fostering loneliness for you right now.
Loneliness is the worst. The absolute worst, but it can be effective at changing us for the better, forcing us to do brave things and appreciate relationships. You won’t notice the change at first, loneliness is stealthy. It delicately changes your perspective while you’re in and it is not until you are fully out of it that you look in the mirror and notice a difference.