In the Shadows

When we pulled into the parking lot, I was disappointed to see that there were three other cars there. I’m not sure why I wanted it to be empty. This kind of experience seemed to want for aloneness.

I pulled into the spot slowly, if only to delay the inevitable by a few seconds. Neither of us said a word.

I parked beside a gray Toyota Camry with a “Coexist” bumper sticker in the back window.

I shifted into park, let my foot off the brake pedal, and breathed deeply.

I turned to Megan.

“Are you sure you want me to stay here?”

“I’m sure. I want to do this alone.” There was a single tear streaming down her pale cheek.

“Okay. I’ll be here. If you need me...”

“Thanks.” She, too, took a deep breath, opened the car door, and got out. She slammed the door shut, and, without looking back, walked toward the entrance. There was a certain determination in her step, but I noticed that she was rolling her hand into a fist, then relaxing it again, over and over.

She struggled a bit to open the heavy, black-framed doors. Then she disappeared behind them.

I looked around the parking lot. There was the Camry next to us, probably twenty years old, a new Ford Focus, and a purple Nissan Pathfinder with ‘baby on board’ signs hanging in the window.

The pavement looked freshly lain and was a stark black, but, oddly, the white parking lines were faded, and so, too, were the yellow parking blocks.

My eyes moved to the building: old, unassuming brick divided perfectly in half by the black doors. There was a sign above them which simply read “Faberman Clinic” in sterile lettering. In fact, everything looked sterile: the building, the pavement. Perhaps it was only the greyness of the day: the skies were blanketed by thin, wispy clouds, and I hadn’t seen the sun all morning. It was cold, too. Thirty degrees, maybe.

Still, I couldn’t shake the sterility of it all. Cold, messy, chaotic, even- but completely free of color.

I turned the radio on, but after a few minutes, I realized I wasn’t listening to it, so I turned it off again, noticing the completeness of the silence. My thoughts inevitably turned to Megan.

We were doing the right thing. We had to be. Decisions like this couldn’t be regretted. This was the kind of thing that could leave a scar for the rest of your life. You have to be strong, to not let it sway you. If the regret ever took over, it would infect everything. I wouldn’t let that happen. Not to me. Certainly not to Megan.

An eternity later, the doors swung open. Megan stepped outside and tightened her scarf, a gift from her mother on her twenty-first birthday last year.

She lit a cigarette, which surprised me. She didn’t smoke. Her dark hair hung loosely over her the right side of her face, and I could only see her left eye, which gazed into the distance. She stood tall, but her neck hung low. I got out of the car and walked to her. She didn’t look at me until I took her by the hand and walked her back to the car in silence.

I started the engine, but didn’t move.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m okay.”

“Okay.” I had prepared some comforting words, which didn’t come.

“Are you hungry? We could get some lunch.”

“No.”

“We could go see a movie. The new Meryl Streep is playing.”

“No.”

“What about a walk? We could just go to the park and walk around the lake.”

“I don’t want to do anything. Just take me home.”

“Megan, I can’t imagine how hard this is, but you can’t just do nothing. Help me take your mind off of it.”

“I don’t want you to take my mind off of it. I want to think about it. I want to dwell on it for awhile.”

“What good will that do? It’s just going to make you miserable. I won’t let you lose yourself to this.”

“I will not run away from it.” She turned to look at me for the first time since we left the apartment.

“Adam, I just aborted a baby. Our baby. I have to let that sink in.”

“Why? Why do you have to let it sink in? You’re just going to get depressed. Why wouldn’t you want to overcome it? To focus on the positive things?”

“Because focusing on the positive things won’t make it go away. It will still be there. This thing that I’ve done is already a part of me. It’s already left its scar. I know what you’re thinking, Adam, and I won’t let this define me. It hurts... it hurts so god damn much... but I won’t let this define me. I have to understand it, because it’s a part of me now. If I run away from it, it will catch up to me, and when it does, it will wrap itself around me and suffocate me. If I let it stay, I can come to terms with it. I can let it walk by my side without ever letting it get in front of me.”

In a recent piece for BigThink, author Derek Beres sheds some light on the concept of loneliness.

He begins by giving loneliness some context: it is one of the core truths of human existence; so much so, in fact, that it is the primary “evil” which most religions attempt to combat with visions of community, togetherness, even an afterlife.

There is a fundamental problem with that approach, however:

Loss and death are integral parts of life; you can mask and decorate them, but you cannot make them disappear.

Because loneliness is so central to the human experience, we can never make it disappear. By building these alternate realities, as Derek says, we only mask the issue, adding layer upon layer of comfortable fiction, until the loneliness is hidden from view by a swirling vortex of fantasy.

Beres goes onto recollect the affirmations offered by friends after his divorce. He was in pain, he was lonely, and those around him attempted to apply their own band-aid to his pain. Of course, they did little to comfort him.

Some friends, though, didn’t attempt to “sugarcoat” the problem. Instead, they offered some sage advice: don’t run from loneliness- run into it.

They turned him onto Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, who had this to say:

Understanding that loss and loneliness are the underlying banes that humans suffer from reminds us to be compassionate in all of our dealings.

Here, I think, is the key concept: understanding. This is not knowledge, nor insight, but wisdom itself. To understand those things which are comfortable, or pleasurable, is admirable. To understand those things which we run from is beautiful.

Contentment means not escaping from your issues, rather acknowledging them as part of a process that, like all else, will one day be gone.

This is such an illuminating statement: to acknowledge the transience of all things is to appreciate them more fully. Your happiness, your sorrow, your job, your mother, your pain, your lover, your self: it is all a speck of dust, waiting merely for the next wind to carry it away.

As Chödrön writes, ‘Loneliness is not a problem. Loneliness is nothing to be solved.’ While she already brought up cultivating less desire, this step simply means recognizing when you are engaged in an activity that is masking your loneliness, and to stop engaging in it.

I’m conflating loneliness with pain here (but, to my mind, a Venn Diagram of the two would overlap to an alarming degree): when I think of the things in my life that have caused pain (or loneliness), I am struck by the fact that there was also so much joy mixed in. My professional triumphs came with a degree of pain: in my striving, I’ve failed and succeeded. Without the one, the other would not exist. Those times that I have loved, the same rings true. Love brings pain and joy, sometimes in equal measure. My daughter is perhaps the most perfect example: I have never known a more perfect love, and yet to see her suffer is the greatest pain man has ever known.

Pain, then, and loneliness are inseparable from joy. Run from one, and you run from the other. (Let us take care not to mistake pleasure for joy.) The only way to live authentically is to run towards loneliness, to embrace it, to accept it for what it is: the shadow in which our reality hides.