When You’re Lonely in a Crowded Stadium (Re: Friendship is Hard)
Many many moons ago, after my first year of college, I decided to make the switch to a different school. It’s a long story, but one of the main characters rhymes with schmoyfriend, and yes, it did it up working out.
Anyhow, by the time I decided to transfer, I’d missed the deadline for fall enrollment. That was cool, though, because I could take the fall semester to wrap things up at the university I loved, with friends I loved, before transferring over the winter break.
In August, I returned to classes eagerly.
That semester was miserable. I have never been so lonely.
I spent those four months snipping the strings that connected me to the people I was with and the space I occupied, but my body was still present. I couldn’t dig in and invest where I was; I couldn’t gain any traction at my target destination, either. In my very dramatic and very Protestant twenty-year-old mind, I decided that purgatory did indeed sound awful and I wanted no part of it.
Do you find yourself lonely, even in the midst of busy stadiums and gymnasiums?
Do you know too much about school politics (and families’ personal matters) to ever let your guard down in casual conversation?
Do you sit on the visitors’ side instead of the home stands? (We all know why.)
Do you wonder what a parent’s motivation might be when they initiate friendship?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do have the gift of hindsight. Looking back to my loneliness in that season, I wish I’d done a few things differently.
1. Expect loneliness.
Expectations, or the absence of them, decide who holds the power. I probably could have anticipated the loneliness—which would have stripped it of plenty of its power. I could have had healthier perspective, seen light at the end of the tunnel, and gotten creative about how to take great care of myself in the midst of the hard place.
2. Speak up.
For the first time in my life, I was the token girl in a group of guy friends. These guys were (and are) tender weirdos like the rest of us, but still, I worked to not be drAMaTiC or talk about my feelings too much. I wanted to be low maintenance, because maybe that would make me more of an asset than a liability. Just be cool, right? Thirty-four year old me begs to differ. I wasn’t ever cool. None of us are. We’re messy and squishy and often in pain. I missed out on opportunities for vulnerable, nourishing conversations with some of my favorite people—and they missed out, too.
3. Find your people.
When I was working out the details of transferring, I heard about a weekend retreat for transfer students. I never even considered attending—I mean seriously, how dorky does that sound? And I am CERTAINLY not a dork. I handled the transition on my own, and, not surprisingly, it was an emotional continuation of the previous semester.
No change in behavior? No change in experience.
A few rough months into my stint at the new university, I heard a fellow student mention that transfer student retreat, and all the friends they made there, and all the connections they made…the resources they gained…you get the picture. The retreat was powerful.
I had counted myself out, and I missed out. If I’d been humble enough to recognize an opportunity when it came up—or at minimum, curious enough to ask questions and learn more—I might have spared myself a lot of loneliness.
The view from the coach’s house is beautiful, but the company is sometimes sparse. So let’s make a game plan and juke loneliness before it breaks our ankles.
Expect that we’ll be lonely at times.
When we remove the element of surprise, we keep the power in our own court. Make a plan for how to love on ourselves when that hollow feeling swells in our chests. Let loneliness know it’s renting, not buying.
Don’t be afraid to have conversations.
Let’s go ahead and talk with folks who want to talk with us. Enjoy human connection, for crying out loud! We can practice boundaries as needed: “Oh girl, let’s please talk about something else,” or “I’m so sorry, that’s hard. I wish a conversation with me would help that issue, but it just won’t.” That kind of sweet bluntness will scare off some folks and win a few friends, which frankly is just fine.
Actively look for your people.
It’s hard, and it’s worth it. What do we want to have in common with our friends? Where are the people who have that desirable quality? Go find them. It may take a minute, and that’s okay. We’re worth it, and they’re going to love us, too.
** Feature image credited to photographer Rebecca Egger of Cast Iron Photos (also the author of this article) **
Rebecca Egger is a portrait photographer. She has self-published two books, Beasts Get Scared Too and Cast Iron Families, and has photographed zero famous people, but hundreds of folks who matter deeply to someone. She likes to fancy herself a runner and a reader, though she takes neither too seriously. Since she’s over 30 now, she’s gotten into both NPR and podcasts, and will likely start listening to audiobooks soon, as one does. She’s married to a coach, duh, and they have three spunky daughters: Charlotte, Georgia, and Birdie.