A friend's Twitter stream pointed me at this item on what to say to someone who is sick (with cancer, in the authour's case) and it touched me. It also reminded me very much of some of the things I've read about the experiences of people fighting infertility, and it reminded me of my own experience too. It seems no matter what problem someone suffers, they can count on their friends and loved ones to make personal contributions to the pain with ignorant, clueless, and hateful repeated attacks that masquerade as caring attempts to help. I don't have much hope that my writing about this here will change anything; the fact that not many people really care what I say about such things is itself an example of the problem. But I'm going to write about it anyway, this one time today.
I don't have cancer. I wouldn't characterize my problem as infertility either, although infertility is one of its consequences. I am alone. I don't have a partner, girlfriend, lover, spouse, or whatever you want to call such a person. Many people like and admire me, and some people love me, but nobody loves me in that one way that counts. To still be alone at the age of 25 is a tragic failure in my life for which no other or future success can compensate, and I'm a lot older than 25 now. I seldom talk about this matter and many people who know me, even some very close to me, probably don't know about it or aren't consciously aware of how significant this issue is for me. There is a simple reason I don't talk about it: I have learned that every time I do I wish I hadn't. Every time I dare to mention my loneliness I get the same responses. They were misguided and wrong the first times I ever heard them, they do not improve with repetition, and since these are all I'm allowed to expect, I don't need to keep repeating the cycle. So I usually don't mention it.
Although unmentioned it does matter to me, and it has shaped many of my decisions on how to live my life in the last ten years or so. There are many things I wish I could have in my life, and most of them cannot start until I resolve this issue in particular. It's why my academic CV is scattered among five or six different subfields of computer science, and I have a lot of other background outside computer science that doesn't even appear on my CV. It's why I'm a "postdoc" right now instead of having a tenure-track position: sure, tenure track is hard to find, but the real reason is that I think if I'm still alone when I commit to that kind of job, I always will be alone.
My religious background is almost as chequered, and it was because of a broken promise related to this in particular that I am no longer a worshipper of Pele. Especially after that experience, it's clear that a deity who earns my allegiance for real will have to be one who puts me in a situation where I am allowed to have real expectations. It's also why I've lived in so many different cities recently, and expanding my options for cultures to live in is a big part of the reason I'm learning a second language. I need to be in an environment very different from the one I'm in right now. I need to be in an environment where I am really allowed to expect the support that has been lacking in all the environments I've visited so far. I need to be in an environment where someone like me is valued as a potential partner that women actively seek sex with for real, not hypothetically.
Every time I leave a community, and I've left a good many communities in the last ten years, my friends line up to tell me how I'll be missed and how important my contributions were. It is nice to be told that I am appreciated. But if what I do for the community is so important and valuable, why can't the community do something small but important for me? If I'm so important to the community, why isn't retaining me treated as a real priority before I leave, not after it's too late? It's hard to believe I'm so much wanted, and even if I did believe it it wouldn't matter, as long as it's all talk that evaporates without action. At the end of the day I'm still alone, whether you valued me or not.
And how much more and how much better could I contribute if I didn't have to spend so much of my own energy on my own problem all alone? From time to time people ask me how I'm able to accomplish so much as I do; but you're only seeing about 10% of what I could do if I weren't dragged down and held back by being alone every day, every night, all the time, without ever any respite at all. I would say it's destroying my life, but it would be more accurate to say I never got to have a life in the first place.
Most of my friends genuinely have no power to resolve this kind of problem for me, and I appreciate that that makes it difficult for you to say or do anything. I know you're in a difficult position: you see me in pain and you want to help, but how? As with cancer, what often happens is that you fall back on unhelpful, overused stock sayings. Here are thirteen of them. It's a long list, and I hope I don't tax your patience. I'm trying not to go into more detail on each one than necessary. At the end I'll talk about some ideas on the other side of what you could say or do that would really help.
#1 "It's your own fault that you are alone, and nobody else's." Few people ever say anything but variations of this to me when the topic of loneliness comes up; I hear it not only from strangers and passing acquaintances but even from many who purport to be my friends. A lot of the other items below are really just specific variations on this one, combined with their own unique twists of the knife.
I don't understand how anyone with even the average five-year-old's understanding of human relations could ever think it was a good idea to say to a friend - even if it were true, which it never is - that their misery was their own fault and nobody else's; and yet many of you do so constantly, both directly and by the implications of other things you say. Would you tell cancer patients it's their own fault? Maybe not. Would you tell infertile persons that that's their own fault? I'm afraid that from what I've heard talking to my infertile friends, many of you would say that to them and do.
Choosing not to be alone is by definition something I cannot do all by myself. For me to have a partner absolutely requires the involvement of another person. That is what it means. If we believe that real people really exist, having what the cognitive scientists call a theory of mind, then my prospective partner necessarily has her own agency or human instrumentality, her own rights, and her own opportunity to decide whether to become my partner. It cannot be a decision made by me and only by me. Nonetheless you say that the responsibility for the decision is mine alone and it has nothing to do with anyone who is not me, and you propose that if I want to change this situation it should be possible for me to change it all by myself without anyone other than me bearing any responsibility.
Think very carefully about what it would mean if I really could make this decision unilaterally, and whether that is something you want to advocate.
#2 "Have you tried dating women?" That's probably the most common variation of #1, and the damned thing about it is that everyone who says it seems to think they are the first to do so. It's on the same level as telling infertile persons to try having sex with their spouses. Do you really think I haven't heard this one before, nor even maybe thought of it without needing to be told? Do you actually think it's not exactly what I've been doing for the past fifteen or twenty years? Do you seriously think that if it were really that easy, I would still be alone? Do you think this is an appropriate thing to say to me and not hurtful?
I don't know what is the lifetime number of times that I have to smile and thank the person who suggests I try dating women, before it stops being obligatory for me to be polite about it. Maybe as many as three. I'm pretty sure that this point has been passed.
#3 "You shouldn't be so picky." I suppose there is a sense in which someone might say that this is supposed to be seen as a compliment: you could claim that you think I'm so attractive that the only way I could possibly still be alone must be that I'm receiving a large number and wide variety of offers and I am turning them all down because I'm "so picky." But just because I'm skilled enough at twisting words that I can pretend I see an interpretation of these words under which they're less insulting, doesn't make it an appropriate thing to say to me.
I know all too well that I'm not "so picky." Nobody knows better than I how pathetically low my standards actually are - how I have had to give up all my dreams and wants and many of my needs in the hope that I can somehow find a partner who basically exists and not much more than that. And you add your insult to the injury telling me that even what I might be grateful for at this point is more than I deserve or can expect and I should stop being "so picky." No living saint has the humility you demand of me when you say this.
#4 "Nobody thinks less of you for it." Now, first of all, that isn't true. Deeply embedded in the culture I live in, and constantly reiterated, is the value judgment that someone who's still alone at my age without a really good excuse is a pathetic loser. But even if you can claim not to be part of that culture and not to have ever contributed to it at all, even if the claim that nobody thinks less of me were true, saying so to me is still deeply insulting because what am I, chopped liver? I am not unhappy because someone told me to be unhappy. I am not unhappy because I'm afraid that someone might "think less of me." I am not so shallow. The fact is that being alone really hurts, and that's much more important than anybody's opinion of me. To put forward that "nobody thinks less of me" is insulting both because it's manifestly false and because it suggests that others' opinions matter to the exclusion of my own.
#5 "Have you tried this Web site, dating service, or self-improvement technique?" The great thing about this one is that you get to take credit but I get to take blame. If I try your suggestion and it seems to work - even if only temporarily and partially, so that at the end of the day I'm still alone - you get to feel good about yourself. Not that that means anything, because these suggestions never do work. But when I try it and it doesn't work, or if for any reason I might choose not to try it, well then that'll be my fault: I didn't really try it, or didn't try it enough, so it must be the case (and you will certainly tell me this, as rudely as possible) that I don't really want my problem to be solved at all. There is never an amount of effort I could put into your ridiculous suggestion that could ever be enough to make it in any way your responsibility and not entirely mine; it can always be claimed that I should have gone further. There is never any knowledge or experience I might possibly have that could make it acceptable for me to recognize in advance that your suggestion should not be pursued. And, as Mr. Feiler said about the mango colonic, "Even worse, the recommenders follow up!"
#6 The "seduction community." (Special case of #5.) Some of my readers probably don't know what the "seduction community" is, and if you don't know what that term refers to, then good for you and I don't want to be the one to tell you. On the other hand, I also have a few friends who've actually joined it temporarily themselves, and I won't judge my friends for that because I think I do understand the appeal even if it doesn't appeal to me. Even if I thought that it was rad to have psychopathy, I wouldn't pay anyone to teach me how. I don't need to have the "seduction community" recommended to me anymore.
#7 "There are other people with the same problem as you, or one comparable." If you mean yourself then okay, I can be glad you chose to share that with me and we can try to mutually support one another. I am much closer to some of my friends than I would otherwise be, because we can share this understanding. That does not change the bad thing of being alone into a good thing; it only means that the world we live in is not the worst of all possible worlds. At least it's something. But if it is not you that you are talking about, and you are just making a general statement about the way the world is, then how does saying that to me make anything better?
#8 "There are other people with worse problems than yours." Again, how does saying that to me make anything better?
#9 Something about "male privilege." Having my dreams and my life taken from me because I insist on seeing women as real people who are not under my control, while being constantly scolded that my unhappiness is all my fault and I have a choice about it, sure doesn't feel like any fucking kind of "privilege." But you want me to agree that not only do I actually have things very good after all, but that it is unfair for me to have things so good as I do, and as a result I owe a debt so great that it can never be repaid, to women in general who pointedly and no matter what I do will never owe me anything collectively or individually. A former friend once told me, as an example of "male privilege," that our culture's traditional clothing for women which she never wore herself anyway during the time I knew her because that ceased to be an absolute requirement before I was born 35 years ago, did not have enough pockets. And that the issue of not enough pockets in women's clothing was a social problem of real concern, comparable to anything I as a "privileged" male could ever face. I think she was sincere.
#10 "If (a false statement) then (anything else)." Conditionals with false premises are literally meaningless. They allow you to get in some words that may sound nice on the surface without actually taking any responsibility for what you say, because there is no way to distinguish the world where one of these falsely premised if-then relationships holds from the world where it doesn't. Examples: "If I weren't already with my soulmate" (but you are); "If I had a sister" (but you don't; and it also implies that you'd get to choose whom she should hook up with, but I have bigger things to be angry about than feminist outrage on behalf of your non-existent sister); "If I liked boys" (but you don't); "If you liked boys" (which at least puts your own feelings on the line in some way, but it also kind of makes it sound like my fault for being straight); and so on. You can be endlessly inventive with these because none of them have any consequences.
#11 "Be patient; everything will be okay when you're ready for it." That might be a reasonable thing to say to a 15-year-old or an immortal. I am neither. How patient am I supposed to be? How much "readiness" is it plausible I could need? As one of my friends put it (talking about having a baby, but it could just as easily apply to my own situation), they don't ask teenage Slut Barbie whether she's ready. If there were any amount of patience, readiness, emotional maturity, and "paying my dues" (to quote another commentator) that were really enough, then what I have already done would be more than it.
And waiting does not come for free. Every night I spend alone is gone forever and will not be compensated. No conservation law applies. They don't hand out extra time at the end to make up for earlier delays like in association football. It's not like the marshmallow test either: with a lot of women I wish I could consider as possibilities already treating me as a Creepy Older Man, waiting does not mean I get to have a better life later. It only further reduces my already-slim chances of ever being able to have a real life at all. This is also related to #5, unfalsifiable: no matter how long I wait it can always be said that I just need to wait longer.
#12 "You sound unhappy; would you like to Talk?" Damn straight I'm unhappy, but I would not like to Talk if it's to be about my feelings. Being alone is something that cannot change only for me, and the change cannot come from me. It must involve someone other than me. I also will not accept treating feelings as the problem. The problem is a fact, not a feeling: the fact that I am alone. The goal is for me not to be alone. The goal is not for me to feel better, though it is a virtual certainty that I would feel better if I weren't alone. So if you're not a prospective partner for me and you want to help me by Talking with me about my feelings, no.
#13 "Being alone is actually pretty good." No, it isn't. Don't invalidate my experience; I know how it feels to be in my situation and you have no right to tell me my reporting of my direct personal experience is incorrect. The fact that some people choose situations superficially resembling mine for themselves on purpose and they're happy about it, doesn't mean that having this imposed not by choice is in any way a positive thing. Consider the difference between sex and rape.
I could go on. It is all too easy to list the things I hear too often and would benefit by not hearing again. But it's not clear that continuing the list would really have much positive effect. I hope that anyone who's made it this far is someone who really does want to make the world a better place for me and for others with problems similar to mine, and if you do want that, you probably wonder what's left. What could you say or do that would really be welcome? I don't know. It's not an easy question; if it were, I would have already solved my own problem. But here are some thoughts.
Nothing at all. As the saying goes, if you can't say something nice - or better yet, silence is golden. Being alone is part of every moment of my life. I do not get to escape from it. I do not get to take a break from it. But it doesn't have to be the only important thing in my life, and especially if you're part of the large majority of my friends who really aren't in a position to help me stop being alone in any meaningful way, it's not necessary for you to think about it all the time. We can find other things to talk about and that's perfectly okay. You don't have to mention that you care, and you don't have to fill the comments section of this posting with non-responses just to show you've read it (I have an HTTP log for that). To refrain from twisting the knife further is all I need from you; it is not necessary for you to do more if, as is true for most, you can't.
Your own not being alone. This isn't exactly something I can say I'm happy to hear about, but yes, many of you have what I wish I had and I don't begrudge you that. Love is not subject to a conservation law or zero-sum game; it does not subtract. That you are not alone does not make it harder for me to achieve the same. So you don't have to hide it from me. Especially not if you faced a struggle too: the fact that you ended up winning should be good from my point of view, because it suggests I might as well. There are some intimate personal details I don't really need to hear about, but that just comes down to good taste and would be about the same whether I were lonely myself or not.
"My thoughts and prayers are with you." The man who wrote the cancer article objected to this one as a meaningless cliché, but honestly, I consider it welcome and am pleased when I hear it. Maybe I'm just that much more desperate than he is. Maybe it's because the message that my problems are solely my own fault is so incessant that almost anything you say other than telling me it's my own fault, comes across as deeply understanding and empathic.
There is a subtlety to "thoughts and prayers" relevant to people for whom prayers are real. I'd value such support from you a lot more if it took into account my perspective that it cannot be about just me without reference to anyone else. But that's a topic for another posting and it's not really my place to tell you how to pray. You have to know that for yourself.
"I have a single friend who might like to meet you; I'll give her your contact information." Yes, I appreciate it. Telling your friend about me is fundamentally different from "you should join this group" or "you should learn this technique" because it involves a specific individual who is not me. Telling me to join a group or learn a technique doesn't really involve any nameable person who is not me. You're not really helping me as long as you cast me as the only named character in the situation; but it's much different and quite welcome to introduce me to someone who actually exists and is a person instead of a group.
"Raising awareness." I've spoken before against "awareness" campaigns for health problems like cancer, asthma, and multiple sclerosis. Everybody knows that cancer sucks. Everybody agrees that being sick is a bad thing. Convincing people that being sick sucks is a nice uncontroversial thing to do - what, you think there are activists out there campaigning in favour of diseases? If you wear a pink ribbon to let others know that you know that cancer sucks, well then you get to feel like you did something (you "raised awareness"!) without having actually having put anything of your own at risk. Doing that drains away your energy that might go toward actually solving the problem, or if, as is true for most of us, you can't really do anything to make cancer not happen, it's energy that might go toward solving a problem you actually could do something about. There are issues that not everybody knows about and not everybody agrees about; there are issues where people's attitudes are a big part or the only significant part of the problem; there are issues where the social stigma of having the problem compounds the problem to be much worse than it would be all by itself; and on those issues, I think there's room for "awareness." Raise awareness for an issue on which your friends won't all agree!
Loneliness is such an issue. It's caused and created not randomly but by human beings on purpose. I didn't get to be alone all by myself; it was a monumental project that took the help of hundreds if not thousands of other people, one rejection, one insult, and one oversight at a time, step by step over a lifetime. And although, as I said above, it hurts much more for itself than just because people think I'm a loser for it, the stigma of being in this space is not inconsiderable either. If everyone were "aware" of and cared about their own responsibility for this, then loneliness like mine just wouldn't exist. So maybe there's room for some "awareness" on this issue, and if you can do nothing else, then talking about it to third parties - don't tell me you care, I already know - spreading that message might be a good thing. Sure, okay, sign a petition or write in your Web log or twitter your tweet or whatever you want to let the world know that being alone matters. But that is the bottom of the list. If there were anything you could do to directly help someone not be alone, then you'd better do that first before you fall back on awareness.