Sunday, November 8, 2015

Moving On: Loneliness, Long-Distance, and Life after Graduation

I've always been somewhat proud of my ability to move on quickly. As I moved house numerous times while I was growing up, I became increasingly adept at putting the past behind me. I faced a new situation with steely reserve and a poker face that over time transformed from a mere fa├žade to a real internal stoicism. Never mind impractical emotions; move on and embrace the new. I was good at change.

That's why I was so surprised at how emotionally difficult I found the transition from my college lifestyle to life after graduation.

When I arrived back in the UK, I was excited to see old friends, but at the same time I honestly didn't feel like I had the energy to genuinely reconnect with anyone or to open myself up to new people. I didn't feel like I had the energy to invest myself in anyone again. Life had moved on since I was last in England, and I wasn't confident of my place in the new social scene. I missed my college circle. I missed having people around who already knew me, my stories, my quirks, my likes and dislikes.

(In spite of how I felt, I did my best to invest in friendships again, even though I still had a hedge around my heart at times, and I'm so thankful I did. My local friend circle is pretty amazing, and I'm much happier now than I was a few months ago. But it took more time than I was anticipating.)

I was surprised at how lonely I felt in spite of new friendships. I wasn't very busy during the summer, and when those balmy summer nights became cool September days and my friends went back to work, I had a lot more time to wander around by myself and miss my old life.

I missed the real sense of community and camaraderie I had in college. I missed having people popping over regularly, even if they were just going to sit at the kitchen table and do homework. I missed being busy (I wasn't in grad school then). I even missed having a room mate, which had been one of the biggest initial "culture shocks" of American college life!

I've always been proud of being a great long-distance friend (also a result of all the moving around as a kid). I love letter writing and there are a few people I'm still close to in spite of seeing extremely rarely. However, over the past couple of years, I've noticed how difficult it is to maintain a genuine connection with friends when you move away. People do move on; everyone is busy with new jobs, new friends, new relationships and marriages, new babies, new priorities, new chapters in their lives. It's normal for relationships to change, but as I experienced that reality after graduation, although my mind understood, this time my heart was slower to catch up. In my heart, it really felt like I was losing friends.

Some nights I would scroll mindlessly through Facebook for much longer than was necessary, trying to feel that elusive sense of connection with the people from my old life, wishing that somebody would message me. I allowed myself a few moments of bitterness: Why was I so often the one to initiate contact? Why weren't other people making the same effort? Sometimes people did message me -- a titbit of news, or a funny cartoon or video. I was glad they were thinking of me, but I ached to meaningfully connect. "Tell me what's happening in your life, tell me about your heart, and ask about mine!" I wrote in my journal one night when I was particularly frustrated.

I missed a sense of genuine, deep human connection.

Adjusting to life after graduation was indeed harder than I had anticipated. It takes a lot more effort and intentionality to build a good friendship circle in the "real world" than in college, and to sculpt your own life instead of letting it be structured by your class schedule. But that effort really is worth it...even if you're emotionally exhausted just thinking about it at first.

I'm thankful to have been reminded of a couple of things in the past six months:

  • It really does get better in time.
  • Nothing can replace genuine human connection. Not Facebook, not Instagram, not Snapchat. Useful as they are (and I am grateful for technology that makes the possibility of staying in touch easier), newsfeeds are no substitute for real, meaningful communication. 

Invest in your relationships, local and long-distance. Be present.

I am moving on. I'm engaging with the next phase of my life. I'm surrounded by delightful people. I'm constantly but happily busy with grad school. I'm much more satisfied and settled than I used to be. Life after graduation is going to be OK.

A piece of advice, first given to Ruth Van Reken and passed on in her book about third culture kids, often plays on my mind. It's applicable as I get used to building this new stage of my life, and, I believe, it can apply to every stage of life that requires embracing change and moving on.

"Wherever you go in life, unpack your bags--physically and mentally--and plant your trees. Too many people never live in the now because they assume the time is too short to settle in. They don't plant trees because they expect to be gone before the trees bear fruit. But if you keep thinking about the next move, you'll never live fully where you are. When it's time to go, then it's time to go, but you won't have missed what this experience was about."