On Eating Alone.

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There’s nothing I can’t stand more than seeing someone eating alone in public. There’s something about it that just guts me. When I was a little girl, I once approached a man who was eating alone at a fast food restaurant and started talking to him. I remember how my heart ached because he was by himself. I remember seeing outcast kids at my junior high and high school who ate lunch alone, and convincing a couple of friends of mine to join me in sitting with them. There’s something intimate about eating. It’s a primal thing. Sharing a meal with someone is relationally intimate, and seeing someone eat alone just seems wrong, to me. I remember being that outcast kid myself in elementary school, when I was banished from a lunch table by my classmates for bringing smelly tuna salad and being a teacher’s pet. I can’t handle the eating alone thing. It. Is. The. Worst.

In 2010 I went to New York City on my own for a conference. I knew I’d have to be that girl–eating alone–in public places throughout the week. For the first day and a half, I ordered room service and/or picked up food from local delis and brought them back to my hotel room. I let the TV be my friend in the evenings and found community in a tiny bottle of Chardonnay and a chocolate bar from the hotel shop. A big part of me wanted to be out exploring the city in the evening, but I couldn’t get over being alone. I was hyper-aware of my solitary state and overly concerned with how I appeared to others; if I looked like a tourist or not, if I was eating at the “right” places, etc. I tried like a madwoman to hail a cab during the day, but always failed. (This is a near-impossible task in mid-December in NYC, I’ve since learned. Thank God for smartphones and taxi apps in 2014!) Waving your arm around in the midst of a crowded street and being completely ignored can make you feel pretty invisible. During the day, I mostly kept my headphones in my ears to look busy, on-a-mission, “too distracted to talk to you.” Even at the conference lectures and gallery tours, I kept my arms crossed as I strolled through displays, took photos, and ached a little bit inside the whole time. My heart and soul longed to be noticed, to be welcomed, to be helped, to be appreciated, to be known–I needed community. But I feared it and told myself I wasn’t worthy of it. I’ve noticed that the more isolated you are, and the longer you stay isolated, the weirder you appear to yourself–and the louder the Devil’s voice is in the silence of your solo existence.

We’re built to be in relationship with God and with other people. When we isolate–whether voluntarily or involuntarily–we upset an innate desire to be known, appreciated, and understood. When something’s innate, it can’t just be denied forever. It can’t be shoved down and ignored for all time. Inevitably, it’ll eat you up. These basic-instinct qualities we’re all born with are God-image-elements and they refuse to be shut away. Now, I know many of us are introverts and we don’t exactly thrive on big parties and high-energy gatherings. (ehem…right here, folks…) However, even if it takes more effort, more chutzpah, more bravery for us–it’s vital to our emotional and spiritual well-being to be truly known by others on an intimate level. And that doesn’t happen by accident. Unfortunately, we have to seek it out and we have to be open to it.

This isn’t anything new, but in the last few months I’ve really started to study social media. I’ve been an avid user since 2004, (ten years of my life…yuck). It’s become incredibly clear to me that quite often, whenever I post on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, I’m often feeling one of four things:

  • A desire to be known
  • A desire to be liked/appreciated
  • A desire for feedback on an opinion or issue
  • A desire for community

Before posting on social media over the last few months, I’ve started trying to ask myself why I’m doing it. Am I craving community? Am I lonely? Am I bored? Am I feeling down on myself? If the answer to any of those questions is, “Yes,” I’ve started trying to back off from the urge to post, and seek out an authentic human interaction. When I get the urge to post a mass prayer request status, I have started to ask myself, “Who are my dearest friends that I know I can count on to comfort me, support me, and pray for me when I need it?” And I contact them, either by email, text, or phone. When I have a desire to share a song on Facebook or Twitter, what I really want is to share something I find beautiful with someone else who will appreciate it. Since there’s really no guarantee of that happening on Facebook or Twitter, I’ve started sending songs directly to people I think will appreciate them. I’ve noticed that when someone gripes about something on social media, they’re often probably just wanting someone to commiserate with. I’ve noticed that when people post play-by-plays of their day on Instagram, they’re probably lonely. Even if the posts are about positive things, I believe that a deep need to share most details of your life with the general public can sometimes be a grasping for community.

This shift in how I use social media (which I still haven’t perfected, by the way…) led me to recognize how I can be better investing in friendships. Creating deeper and more meaningful interactions with people happens pretty easily when you direct your interactions directly toward them, it turns out. When all (or even 75%) of your grasping for community comes from mass communication, there’s a good chance you’re going to be left feeling lonely and isolated in the long run. Just like on the streets of NYC, with a million people around you, you can still feel lonely. With a husband and three kids, you can feel lonely. With a solid friend group, you can feel isolated and never truly known. With a great-on-paper small group/bible study, you can still feel something inauthentic about it. With a booming professional life and a jam-packed schedule of travel and elbow-rubbing, you can feel completely alone. With 400+ friends and followers, and 4 daily Instagrams, your heart can still be entirely hidden.

I love this quote from UK Daily News: “TV programmes (think Sex And The City, Friends, Mad Men) are filled with people leading satisfying lives…This means that sociability is what we’re presented with, while loneliness is what we experience. With sociability so glamorised, so normalised, it’s no wonder we lie about loneliness. Who wants to admit to not fitting in, to having some of their most basic human needs left unfulfilled? This situation is only going to get worse given the enormous pressure on us all to be interconnected though social media. The notion that we’re all ‘linked in’ will only grow as technology proliferates. The myth of heavily peopled lives will become more entrenched as we actually become more alone. The disconnect between the silence surrounding loneliness and the huge number of people leading lonely lives has to end. Loneliness is a profoundly human emotion: it’s the signal that our need for contact and connection is going unmet.”(Source)

After two days of shutting the world out in NYC, I was walking up 5th Avenue after my lectures were over and was stopped by a young man on the corner of W 35th Street. I immediately noticed that he had an armful of packets for sponsoring children through World Vision. He didn’t jump into his spiel immediately. I pulled my headphones out of my ears and we chatted for a moment. He intentionally broke me out of my heads-down, stare-at-my-boots, just-get-back-to-the-hotel mentality and created a moment of relationship. He could tell that I looked like I was in a hurry with somewhere to go, and he asked if I was on my way to work in the area. I laughed, happy that I passed as a native New Yorker, and told him I was there for business and was headed back to my hotel. He said with the way I was dressed he thought I worked in fashion. (It wasn’t a come-on you guys…it was 5th Avenue!! I was wearing all black like someone in fashion!! Trust me. :)) He learned a few things about me, I learned a few things about him, and we both went on our way. Instantly, I noticed that my steps were lighter, I held my head higher, and I felt able to face those crowded and lonely streets for the rest of my trip. I spent the afternoon exploring on my own instead of going to my hotel. I walked into a family-owned Italian restaurant, met the owner and chatted with him about the pictures of his family on the walls. I sat at a table and ate a meatball with marinara–alone. Sure, I read a magazine I had with me to have something to do besides shove food in my face–but I didn’t shut down. I smiled at people who walked by. I interacted with people. I created my own temporary community wherever I went. By the end of my trip a few days later, I felt like I could make it in NYC. And you know what that means–I can make it ANYWHERE. (I know, New Yorkers…It was only 5 days. Not months and months of the city trying to take you down and steal your ability to thrive. I’ve heard the horror stories. But it was a big deal for this Midwestern suburbanite, ok?!)

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Visiting the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree–alone!

My point being this–I’m realizing how important relationships are. I’m realizing that everyone feels lonely…I think more of us are lonelier than we care to admit. When I feel lonely, when I feel like I’m lacking in authentic relationships, when I feel far from God–my first and ultimate Friend and Comforter–I turn to this verse to remind me to whom I belong, and who knows me, appreciates me, hears me, understands me, and loves me deeply and more extravagantly than I’ll ever comprehend.

But you belong to God, my dear children…because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world. 1 John 4:4

So…

Let your light shine, don’t hide it under a bush, all that jazz. Notice people. Appreciate people. Seek to really know them more than just on the surface.

Join me in pushing loneliness away and trying to create more face-to-face authenticity, less online faux-relationship, and having more God-satiated innate desires. Yes?

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One thought on “On Eating Alone.

  1. This is excellent, Andrea.

    I agree that everyone experiences loneliness, no matter how surrounded they (we) appear. Thank heavens there are World Vision guys out there.

    My phrase lately has been “Stay awake for it.” My whole life I have chosen to end an interaction because I’m tired or I have a headache or I just want to be alone. So when I’m faced with an option to keep going with interaction, I’m trying to stay awake, stay engaged, be a World Vision guy.

    Well done, once again.

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