There are nearly seven billion people on this planet of ours, with seven billion unique personalities and identities that we can communicate and connect with. And each one of those billions of people holds thousands if not millions of beliefs and ideas in their brain, which can be unlocked and interchanged through language and friendship. Over their lifetime, these neural bonds will multiply, birthing new ideas and beliefs that differ ever so slightly but could yield wholly original areas of insight. And each one of those connections can be described in tens, perhaps hundreds, maybe thousands of thoughts or words. What I believe is that no one should be alone, and to overcome loneliness, deep, personal friendships must be established through the sharing of these connections.
Added all together then, the potential for unique exchanges and conversation with other members of our species is halfway to infinity. Of course, this assumes the person wanting to discover these living treasures knows all languages, travels the entire world, and is willing to have a beer with and befriend just about anyone. Unrealistic, yes, but even when imagined extremely conservatively, people will seemingly always have someone else to share their thoughts with if they are willing to be brave and expand their social circles. No one ever has to be alone.
When I was in high school, lunch time was the acid test of one’s identity. With whom one sat said volumes, or at least that was the impression. Most people had a group of friends they would always sit with; some had multiple groups they could go to. Occasionally, there were tiny pockets of two or three or four people who ate together. I had a couple groups of friends I could eat with, depending on the day and how I felt. At times it seemed not being left out of the group and the loop of gossip was even more important than actually eating a lunch. It frequently felt that way, unfortunately.
It is a strange feeling to eat lunch in a large, people-filled cafeteria in high school with no one around. It is like being naked. That’s how I felt whenever I ate alone; as if all eyes were always on me. When one eats around other people, there is safety in numbers, because one doesn’t look awkward and out of place. This peculiarity arises out of the social paranoia emanating from high school and adolescence, and it is difficult to find a place in America without some variation of it.
One day curiosity got the better of me and I decided to leave the cafeteria bubble group I had been eating with and sit with a new group I hadn’t met before. This was a lot harder than I thought. It’s not easy to introduce oneself to a new group of people at lunch in high school and expect them to be amicable. No, when in adolescence the best way is just to sneak in lowly, under the radar, and get familiar with them that way.
The long, bland, bench-like table I chose happened to be the table where all the students in the ESL, or “English as a Second Language” program sat. I don’t know why I sat there for my experiment. It was ill-conceived, as most didn’t even speak my language. Nonetheless, I made a friend that day, a guy from Africa who I’ll call Z, who had been through a war. That was not light lunch gossip, but it was an interesting experience. When he asked me at the end of lunch that day if I’d return to their table I said I would, but I never did. I should have, but I was too nervous.
Weeks after that, once I had returned to my familiar group of friends at lunch, the whole experiment had drifted from my mind. I was back with a familiar circle; shallow friends who talked about soccer and girls. I glanced over at the ESL table and was reminded of Z. That was a different conversation— it had a fuller, more real quality to it. I felt bad for not keeping my word. At least, though, he was eating in a group of kids he was familiar with. I then wondered how much his beliefs and thoughts probably differed from mine, having grown up in a completely different part of the world. It was then that I understood the difference between mindless chitchat, and deep conversation.
Just because two people talk doesn’t mean they will become friends. For the lonely, talking about the weather or whether the football team will win this year does not create comfort or induce a warm, tingly feeling because it is vacuous. Sure, people can make many friends this way, but they will be shallow, fickle ones who will be swept away once the wind changes. For the deep and lasting cure to loneliness, friendship, people need to understand one another. The conversations that lead to this are the ones that get to the roots of a person’s identity; their hopes and fears, values and beliefs. It is in this way that lasting, meaningful friendships are made.
There were others less fortunate than Z, students who did not have a group of peers to sit by, who I occasionally ate with. My conscience feels guilty because I didn’t interact with them more often. Sometimes I wonder what happened to people like that, but it’s difficult to predict. I hope they are no longer eating meals alone.
Even though people can be surrounded by others, a tall wall might still be separating them. The wall may be invisible to most people, but that doesn’t make it any less imposing for some. It is up to each of us to knock down this wall in our attempts to communicate with each other. But even when we chat, only when people truly understand each other will the toxin of loneliness be cured.