COVID-19 Has Made Us All Lonely. Somehow, The Only People I Can Relate To Are Fictional.

Photo Anthony Tran, via Unsplash

As an empath, reading fiction is a wild ride. I see an advantage in possessing the ability to step further into a character’s emotional depth than most; I feel pulled deeper into the story. Being an empath is a blessing and a curse: you feel everything. So I’m more particular in the fiction I choose. I don’t need to be haunted by a fictional character’s misery for a month after returning a book to the library.

This past year, I plunged myself into all sorts of characters. Funny, brash, clueless, hopeful, rigid, ethically questionable, life-of-the-party, stubborn, sensitive characters. In the fall, I noticed a particular affinity for the lonely protagonist, not loners, but lonely. These people have copious friends, family, and mentors, but they’re lonely inside. And only we, the reader, are privy.

I found myself identifying with them. In America Is Not The Heart by Elaine Castillo, Hero is an undocumented Filipino woman living with family in the Bay Area, trying to piece together a normal adult life after ten years served in the wholly radical New People’s Army. We have almost nothing in common. She was a doctor, an immigrant, an only child, a highly respected member of an intensive resistance movement, and has broken thumbs.

She is also incredibly lonely. And yet, I felt more connected to Hero than I thought possible. I felt myself in so many of her moments as she experienced loneliness. Hero must navigate a new life in the states, and with it new family, friends, and relationships. Her guard is always raised and moments of pure joy are rare.

Studies indicate that more than three in five Americans are lonely, but we never talk about it. The past decade proved groundbreaking for normalizing discussions of racism and mental health, both historically silenced. However, affirming loneliness and discussing it freely has yet to arrive.There are a lot of moving pieces in today’s social landscape, and talking about loneliness just isn’t trending yet.

So what are lonely people like me supposed to do? I need to feel seen. My social-emotional compass is sound, and my people skills intact, but I still feel ill-equipped to talk about my experiences at length with close friends. I have a strong loneliness radar, so I know some of them are also lonely. And somehow still, we don’t talk about it.

More than anyone, I identified with Wallace, a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison trying to navigate being one of the only Black people in his world. Wallace is the center of Real Life by Brandon Taylor. Wallace experiences loneliness for more obvious reasons: his all-white friend group makes no effort to understand or relate to his experience as a young, Black man from the Gulf South. They make no attempt to stand up for him when he experiences daily micro-aggressions or blatantly racist comments, instead they pretend it doesn’t happen. He has no one and nothing to protect him.

Loneliness is typically caused by a lack of feeling understood, and literally no one understands Wallace — to the point of absurdity. But that’s a fundamental problem with token diversity in higher education. What makes his loneliness unique is the precision of it, the depth to which Wallace understands his own island.

“He [understands] that he wants to be alone.That the world has worn him down. That he would like nothing more than to slip out of his life and into the next.” -Real Life

I have never felt so seen by a protagonist in my entire young adult life. And yet, we have so little in common. Somehow, I spent the entire novel empathizing with Wallace’s experience with dangerous whiteness and seeing myself in him. How could I relate to his loneliness if the causes are fundamentally different from mine and, as a white woman, impossible for me to ever, truly understand?

The cause might be less relevant than the condition itself; loneliness is quite possibly one of the most relatable experiences available to us. Outside of these pages, I see an easy route to connecting with fictional loneliness, because relaying real loneliness with someone is such a rare experience.

People like me — and there’s no shortage of us — need to feel seen and need to be able to see ourselves in others so we know we’re not alone. We need validation, if only so we can move on with our day. This lack of balance between opportunities to connect with fiction and real people over loneliness is significant in an era where experiencing it is arguably more pervasive than ever; as researchers are finding links between chronic loneliness and long term health effects, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and depression.

Since the majority of us keep loneliness to ourselves, we risk becoming complacent. We must find ways to cope as acts of resistance and self protection. If we’re not ready to open up about loneliness, then it’s necessary to find meaningful outlets to feel validated. Coping with loneliness means playing the long game. We should never settle for anything less than affirmation.

I won’t claim to know how lonely people choose to entertain themselves. Still, maybe this is how we cope. We pour ourselves into fictional characters — who, to each author’s credit — feel painstakingly real to us. Maybe this is the route we take while we work on talking to the real people close to us.

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Ellie Sullum

Ellie Sullum

Gen Z Storyteller. Denver, CO / Historical lands of Arapaho, Ute and Cheyenne.