Sometimes in life, things don't happen the way we want or go the way we think they should. Where once there was a feeling of security and certainty, suddenly there is confusion and fear. I know the latter feelings very well. Several times over the past years, the floor has been ripped out from under me a few times. I know what it feels like to be in the free-fall of uncertainty and vulnerability, wanting to land but scared of the impact. Sometimes, as scary as the free-fall can be, it is nowhere near as frightening as the questions about what is to come. There have been times then it seemed easier to give up, to give in and just be done with it all. But then, for some reason, there is something that clicks, shifts and for some inexplicable reason, there was the hope that things would be ok and the faintest belief that it would all work out.
Just to be clear, I am not only talking about the trials and tribulations in life. Sometimes, the most amazing things can feel as intensely scary as the hard times. In my case today, it is about opening up and putting myself out there, way out there, even though I have no idea what will happen. I feel like there are just so many skeletons in my past, mistakes I've made and things I've done I'm not proud of. I find myself wanting and even needing to show someone and at the same time being terrified of what will happen when they see. I don't know exactly why I am scared. I guess there are just things about myself I don't really like to look at, so showing those things to someone else is beyond intimidating. I am trying to walk in vulnerability and not let it shut me down, make me pull away or do any of the usual things I do when things get uncomfortable. I am trying to let myself be seen, really seen.
Over a decade ago, I heard about sawubona. It is a greeting used among the largest South African ethnic group, the Zulu. In its simplest form, it means "I see you." But deeper than that, it means “I see your being, your dignity, respect, humanity and personality.” It is a word that sees and acknowledges the essence and spirit of a person, thereby honoring the person and who they are. The usual response to sawubona is ngikhona, which means “I am here” or “I have been seen” and like sawubona, means a lot more. It says “My dignity and spirit have been recognized.”
In my life, I learned very early how to keep people at arm's length. I never really fit in, never really had friends until I was older. I knew I was different in ways I could not understand or articulate. I felt isolated, separated. I felt invisible and insignificant. Even at home, I felt like a stranger. Unseen, unheard and unknown. By the time I was an adult, it was something I kept around me. It kept the hurt out, kept me safe. It also kept me lonely, no more so than when surrounded by mobs of people. I wrote about it a few years ago.
On Loneliness - July 12, 2010
Throughout my life, there is one feeling that has always been there. Sometimes it is overpowering and at other times it lingers just below the surface, and I can feel it, waiting. Even now, in the one of the most populated places on the planet, I still feel so lonely. It is the feeling I wake up with, the one I carry around all day and one I feel when I go to sleep. Even when I am laughing, it is there in the background. It is not a feeling of loneliness that is about the longing for the company of other people, but more a feeling that there is nobody who truly knows me, nobody who is truly there.
Sometimes it is the most intense when I am with someone else. How is it possible to physically be so close to someone and yet worlds apart. Why is it the people who are most important to us can, without even knowing it, make us feel so completely and painfully invisible and alone? And then I don’t know what to do. So often I want to reach for a hand, just to hold it, to feel another person, but then there is the fear of them pulling away and the loneliness is so much easier to deal with than the potential rejection that seems inevitable.
And so I go it alone, even in the company of others. I am there with them, but not really, not totally, not in the way I would like to be. I see so many people that seem to effortlessly connect with others and I don’t understand them. I know people think I am that way. They see an exterior that looks shiny and polished, but the fact of the matter is, I have just learned to fake it. I shut people out as much as I can, and when I have to, I put on a huge smile, tell some jokes and tell the world that everything is fine. But it is all smoke and mirrors, slight of hand and it is getting more and more difficult to pull the rabbit out of the hat. When I do talk to people, I am clumsy and give the impression I am making everything all about me. But the fact of the matter is, I am just gasping for air, trying to stay afloat.
I hate feeling lonely, but I am not sure how to feel any other way. I am tired of putting on a smile when all I really want is just to be held, really held and cry. I want to feel safe, heard and seen. But it doesn’t happen and so I go on, waiting and wanting but growing more confident that it is never coming. And I am not sure I would know what to do if it happened anyway.
For the first time, I think I am beginning to really understand the meaning and importance of sawubona and ngikhona. I am learning they are essential to the life I want to lead. A life that is spent being seen, being recognized and loved, not only in spite of the past, but quite possibly because of it.