Empathy in Isolation: Sharing Loneliness with Nick Carraway

In Act IV of Coriolanus, Shakespeare uses a seemingly inconsequential simile about a solitary dragon leaving its swamp. It is in this simile that Shakespeare coined the adverb “lonely.” Similarly, in Act III of Hamlet, Polonius tells Ophelia to sit down and read, so that her “loneliness” would appear natural. It is odd that loneliness—a feeling universally understood today—is a relatively new term, and it is perhaps more puzzling that loneliness as a feeling of dejection, of separation from one’s inherent need for relationships, was just adopted in the early nineteenth century. This latter period is known for works such as Frankenstein, that present a purer, more internally explicit loneliness than that with which Shakespearean characters grappled. Indeed, Romanticism fleshed out loneliness through schism: Emerson and Thoreau praised solitude and individualism as the means for “finding oneself” through quiet reflection and meditation, while Hawthorne used Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne to bitterly scorn isolation. Looking forward to the “lost generation” writers such as T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, along with a sweeping majority of Pulitzer-winning novelists, it seems that that troubling side of loneliness has taken hold in literature, which may merely be a reflection of society’s state of mind. Just in the past decade, the United Kingdom appointed an official “Minister for Loneliness,” the American Psychological Association said that loneliness is a greater public health threat than obesity, and suicide rates among 10-17 year olds rose 70%, according to CDC data cited by the USA Today.

Despite the apparent universality of loneliness, I did not truly understand it until my junior year of high school. Virtually my entire life I had happily identified as an introvert, content in my American identity of not-so-rugged individualism. From this perspective, I found myself generally puzzled by the constant stream of controversial “young adult” novels that seemed so obsessed with isolation; such psychological screams of pain greeted my ears regularly, yet my lack of empathy rendered me deaf. However, in February of that year, when I flew to Florida with my family for our annual vacation, something far worse than sunburn or neglected homework awaited me: my first true exercise in loneliness. Describing such a thing is a curious task. It is something you must be experience to know, like a first love or death of a close relative—yet we each struggle to relate its woes, for how else will those ignorant of its afflictions cope with such hardships and fight back when they strike? And so I beat on.

That first week, was a lovely, tranquil, series of days, but by Friday I ran out of books and had to visit the local thrift store to hopefully unearth some dusty paperback satisfactory to the “ten-percent” truth of Sturgeon’s Law. Thankfully, on a bottom rack between worn copies of Fifty Shades Darker and Left Behind: Soul Harvest: The World Takes Sides was an untouched copy of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for fifty cents. With a sigh of relief, I slid the thin volume from the shelf and emerged from that retiree’s paradise two quarters poorer, ready for my final weekend by the pool with my virgin daiquiris and peeling shoulders. But as the next week’s guests arrived, my vacation was thrown into disarray; indeed, I was unknowingly embarking on three incredibly formative days. Old folks were still around, but, apparently, most east coast schools take off the entire week of President’s Day, and the resort started to swarm with children and teens from New England. These young friends had been meeting up on vacation their entire lives, and I watched in confusion as the high schoolers from Syracuse and Boston and God knows where else crowded around the typically vacant beach volleyball court, catching up on their year apart.

Watching this, the most curious longing arose inside me, and my eyes scanned the pages of Gatsby, not really absorbing a word. I listened to the laughter, the screams as those guys and girls my own age as they played games and jumped in the pool and chased each other across the short boardwalk to the beach. And the hollowness in me deepened, and I began to wonder, what is the point of coming to this paradise and sitting in silence with my nose in a book for ten days? This evoked a disdain for myself, and I craved for that group of friends to ask me to join them, to talk to them and enjoy their presence and play volleyball. But I was not their friend, I was there to be ignored, and so I continued to sit and absorb the sad words on the page:

“At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others–poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner–young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.”

Shockingly, I was too dense at the time to open my eyes and see the urgency with which such words spoke to my own circumstances; I simply let each magnificent chapter fly by and stubbornly drew my eyebrows together, dissatisfied with the narrator, Nick Carraway, as he carefully restrained himself from judging the vain fools around him. How could Nick stand silently and have no desire to help those around him overcome their immoral obsessions and corrupt character? Even worse, he helped Gatsby and Daisy get together. Nick provides great unethical advice and then right when he is ready to sneak away Gatsby calls, “wait, old sport,” and he returns to his side like a forgiving puppy, ready to follow with an indifferent Jordan Baker by his side. To me, this was not true friendship.

Toward evening I left my spot to change for dinner, but all those friends were still going from volleyball to pool to hot tub to beach and around again, and I didn’t know if it was worse watching their enjoyment and enduring the constant rejection, or leaving with the knowledge that another day was wasted and I hadn’t achieved what I wanted. I felt as though I was J. Alfred Prufrock, watching the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo, yet I wanted so desperately to join in that conversation, for hadn’t I foolishly spent every vacation my entire life failing to make memories, simply measuring my life with piña colada straws? I pouted all evening and hardly ate at dinner, then we stopped by the small local grocery store to resupply my grandparents cache of sweets. There I saw the brother and sister from Syracuse laughing as they swerved through the aisles, filling their cart with food for the entire week they had ahead of them. I picked at the hem of my shirt and looked away, not wanting to be caught gawking with jealousy at relationships. The fulfillment everyone else had in their shared connections.

In the span of that weekend I rejected my Jeffersonian tradition of reveling in individualism; if Thoreau himself appeared I would have spat at him for promising that happiness is found in quiet contemplation and isolated meditation. Those days I grew to want something new—to dive into the throng of people in Gatsby’s West Egg home and bask in the conversation and dancing and partying to fulfill my newfound “political nature.” Alas, as the community swarmed around me those pleasant, sunny days I remained shackled to my lounge chair and my mouth was muzzled, not out of pride, but fear of embarrassment, rejection, and cementation of my lonely condition. And I watched all the next day and I finished The Great Gatsby and I felt unsettled, for I could not shake Nick’s thought that Gatsby, laying in his casket, was pleading with him,

“Look here, old sport, you’ve got to get somebody for me. You’ve got to try hard. I can’t go through this alone.”

How could that not be a true friend? That loyalty to Gatsby was admirable, and realizing that Nick actually “disapproved of him from beginning to end” yet still gave him “that intense personal interest to which every one has some vague right,” revealed what Nick had wanted all along: to know others completely and be able to say “I loved them for their own sake, and they for mine,” in the spirit of Augustine and Alypius. But this selfless, redeeming love Nick gave was tragically never reciprocated.

The confusion of these thoughts added to the ache in my heart and I left the sun early, unable to handle the good times around me and hoping to escape the misery in which I was wallowing. That night I sat down to write, to let all of the confused emotions poor out, but I could not translate the pain I felt so I just wrote down everything I had seen and heard: I relived every game of volleyball and rewrote all the conversations, and I described each person and recorded what I admired about each person and what annoyed me and what I found interesting or strange, and I documented their mannerisms and what they were wearing, and I hated myself for doing this, and then these ridiculous childish tears began to drip on the page. I smeared them. I pushed the tears across the wet ink and gazed blurry-eyed at the streaks. What was I expecting them to give me that would make me happy? Was I over-romanticizing the friendships I saw? After all, those friendships only lasted one week a year; such a thing could not possibly fill the stupid, aching, cliché void inside of me and oh, God, I’m so lonely! How did I not know my own loneliness three days ago? Where is that ignorant bliss?

And now it is my final night, my bags hastily packed, the small amount of homework I brought is still undone, but at this juncture such things seem unutterably trivial. And after lying awake awhile I walk out onto the empty beach under the stars and collapse on the sand, waiting patiently as the tide rises inch by inch, meeting first my heels, then knees, and finally torso. And I look behind me at the lights in the rooms of those Northeastern friends laughing together and I go to stand, but my thick skull finally begins to see the blaring poetic justice of the situation and I let out my own laugh and lay back again, letting the waves continue to lap against me as I marvel at my circumstances.

I recall the moment that Nick Carraway stood in a downpour beside a proud Mr. Gatz and the man known as “Owl Eyes” who stood wiping his glasses and tsk-tsking; I think of that hollowness inside Nick that mirrored the vanity around him, an emptiness not unlike the halls of Gatsby’s mansion at his calling hours, where his only true friend frantically telephoned old acquaintances, begging everyone to come. And I imagine Nick being transported—still soaking wet from the graveside—back behind Gatsby’s house, where he sprawled on the beach the night before moving and looked out at the green light of Daisy’s dock and the dream of fulfillment it had promised to his friend. This image of the loneliness Nick feels and the promise he sees in that light on the horizon is just too perfect and I yell out over the water, “I am Nick Carraway!” How could standing virtually alone at a friend’s funeral and being excluded from a game of beach volleyball possibly be comparable? Is there some shared connection through history of Midwesterners lying alone at night on east-coast beaches, staring at distant lights? I thought so, and in that moment, my jealousy of the friendships around me softens, my longing for just one game of volleyball dims as I picture Nick Carraway, the most steadfast of friends, standing by that grave and lying on that beach possessed by the same unutterable feeling of loneliness that consumes myself. And in this irony that the greatest of friends was left without a single one, I let loose that laugh and yelled to the sea in my recognition that the only thing I had was the greatest of all, for I had that same capacity for love and loyalty, yet was left alone. I am Nick Carraway.

For a moment, I allow myself to indulge in a fantasy of some coarse sequel to Fitzgerald’s classic, wherein justice is served and Nick is awarded a friend who deposes the loneliness he never deserved in favor of the selfless love and loyalty he gave so freely. And to me this meant that, by syllogism, I too will someday cross paths with another midnight-beach-laying-light-watcher, who plays volleyball beside me with the same resolve that he stands by my dripping casket or my immoral love affairs. And in this glorious, perhaps naïve, hope of a promised future friendship, I jump up and frustratingly attempt to sprint through the shallow waves and dive beneath them, not to be “borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance,” like the modern Prometheus’ monster escaping his loneliness, but to accept these past three days from which I will forever be “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” I want to remember the loneliness so that I may someday understand the ways that it changes and ages hearts. Diving beneath and emerging from this watery expanse I experience a rebirth, a baptism, in which I make peace with my loneliness yet solidify my newfound hope that I am not truly alone, that somewhere along the expanse of the coast another companionless soul of this Second Lost Generation is calling out for me, Nick Carraway.

Ryan Pfeiffer is a sophomore studying economics.

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