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Why should the lovely, smart and funny 19-year-old student who works in my office feel more single this time of year than at any other?
The holidays make her feel as if she’s supposed to be in a cuddle, since everybody else suddenly seems paired off, like mittens, slippers or AA batteries.
"Innumerable pictures of what appears to be the exact same happy couple all over my social media makes me feel as if I’m in a funhouse sponsored by Hallmark," Nicole shrugs. "I feel literally singled out."
Nicole is not the only one. A pal from Philadelphia, Suzy Johnson, posted a simple comment at Thanksgiving to her Facebook friends: "Giving a big shout out to my single friends or those going through tough times — we’re thinking of you!"
Having spent years on her own, Suzy was respectful of the complicated feelings people can have when it seems as if the rest of the world has been magically partnered off, has the perfect family or the most adorable child.
My friend Maria Miranda wisely reminds us that "social media is not the great equaliser but the magnifier of disparity." True, but before we scrolled through screens, we sifted through holiday cards displaying toothy children decked out in matching plaid. Years before photo cards, we read mimeographed holiday letters announcing varsity victories, prom dresses and delivering Mum’s Secret (Hush!) Recipe for Turkey Bourbon Surprise!
Before public proclamations of any form were issued, however, we actually had to get to know one another. I’ll bet getting to know each other made for less wistfulness, envy and competition.
That’s because when you know what other people’s lives are really like, complications and imperfections factored in, you cheer for whatever happiness they’ve wrestled from fate’s clenched fist. There is no such thing as an ordinary life.
Only significant interactions — otherwise known as honest conversations — allow for the kind of emotional intimacy that makes us connect in a way that matters. These interactions take courage because they involve vulnerability.
When author and artist Nancy Roman admitted, "Once in a while — not too often — a photo of a woman holding a baby breaks my heart a little," I understood what she meant. Nancy continued, "It’s something childless women understand but can’t express."
It’s the "once in a while" that grabs at my heart. Only when we’re able to discover the edges, crevices and precipices of someone else’s interior landscape is it possible to grasp who they actually are. If we’re only permitted access to the flawless, glazed, impenetrable surfaces, there’s nothing to hold on to — and so we slide right by, unimpressed and leaving no impression. What good is that?
Nick Newman, a friend from my college days, describes himself as "born a generation too early to reap the rewards" of the "normalising profiles" of same-sex couple’s courtships and weddings now presented in magazines and newspapers. He wonders at the ubiquitous images of "younger, aspirational men" when he remembers watching most of his friends "die way too young". Is it surprising that Nick flips quickly through stories of "domestic bliss"?
Is it a surprise many of us feel lonely?
Nanci Pelati, a writer known for her humour, took the question of social comparison and loneliness seriously when she wrote "having a spouse, siblings, parents, children or a giraffe will not make you less lonely if something else is preventing you from feeling whole."
Disappointed to learn that even a giraffe wouldn’t help, I knew that by openly discussing her own struggles, she can help make her friends and readers feel less alone in their own.
Another comic writer, Amy Hartl Sherman, displays similar courage when she explains, "Even as I post pictures of me and my mother, I feel lonely looking at them. We can smile for that instant, but people who are best friends with their mum is foreign to me. My pictures disguise the complexities of our relationship. Therein lies my loneliness."
"My kids are grown and making their own traditions," said Cynthia Ballard Borris. "My family tree is dormant; I see no grandchildren on any branch. So I can stay in the present. I try to dance in the beauty of today even if I dance alone."
Picture that: amid the curated confection and perfection of the holiday season dances a scattered family of solitary souls, just as imperfect as the rest of the world, just as deserving of a warm embrace.
"Like" and "share" shouldn’t happen only on Facebook.
- Gina Barreca is an author and board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut.