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Authentic Eagles: Michael Granatelli on Solitude

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our true selves. Embracing our individuality  can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being one’s authentic self at BC. We hope that readers are inspired to have conversations and reflections of their own, working towards being more authentic individuals.

Michael Granatelli, A&S '15

For a large part of my life, I would refer to my role in social interactions as a “people pleaser”. At my middle school lunch table,  I remember taking everyone’s trays to the garbage almost every single day. It became a routine of piling the remnants of their lunch onto my tray, someone making a sarcastic comment, me shaking my head in fake-anger, and then everyone laughing and thanking me as I walked away with a leaning tower of trash. I could give you more details about how that type of behavior has continued over the years, but anyone who has seen me at a bar anytime in the last few months (and don’t get me started on when I studied abroad in Spain), would understand exactly what I mean.

A few weeks ago, one post-Senior Night heart-to-heart with one of my roommates found us reflecting on the obscenely large credit card receipt in my pocket. When he asked me why I always offered to buy people drinks, give them rides, cook for them, or proofread their papers, my response left me feeling pretty unhinged.

I told him that I did all of these things, and countless more, because of the incessant worry that the people that I cared about, and even the people that barely knew me but still benefited from a favor, would someday stop liking me, and would look back on this instance of kindness and hopefully change their mind. The truth is, there are few people at BC, or in my life for that matter, who have given me any reason to believe they would ever experience some abrupt realization that I was not someone they wanted to talk to anymore. On the contrary, I have been surrounded by people who have shown me nothing but unconditional love and support through difficult times and tried to make me feel important. The scary reality is that the only person in my life who has never done that is myself.

I recently read a book for my core Theology class called Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen spends the first third of the book discussing the stark contrast between loneliness and solitude, and how they can silently shape our lives. He refers to loneliness as a desperate need for “otherness”, the tendency to helplessly grasp and cling to a quick solution or fleeting feeling of fulfillment, a state of unrest that longs for inner peace. It is discomfort with the seemingly unacceptable concepts of not knowing, of being flawed, and with the illusion that people or things will be able to permanently fill those voids.

These feelings have manifested themselves in several ways during the course of my life–the period of time where I abandoned the use of mirrors for several months, the unhealthy expectations I have for the people closest to me, an occasional avoidance of large social gatherings, and at its worst, the desire to sleep the day away to avoid the responsibilities of being awake–being alone with myself. I would ask my best friend to make plans days or even weeks in advance because I felt that I couldn’t get through any period of time without something, or someone else, to look forward to.

Above all else, I feared being lonely, because who would want to be alone with someone they didn’t like? Who wants to feel like they are with no one other than the person that causes them the most conflict? Mental health issues can play a role in all of these experiences, but the universal feeling of loneliness is what can suffocate on a regular basis.

“A suffocating loneliness.” That is the title of the first chapter of Nouwen’s book. I started to ask myself: How often have I, or one of my friends, experienced the feeling that loneliness has taken away our ability to just breathe? How often has a friend clung to their partner in an unhealthy relationship because they feel a sense of completion by the occasional affection they are receiving? How often have I clung to the characters and plotlines of a television show or movie, spending hours on Netflix avoiding my responsibilities because the stresses of my own life has become so intense? (Shout out to Dunder Mifflin Paper Co.). How often have I clung to thoughts of the future when feeling left out or betrayed has caused me to imagine happier times that are surely to come? How often do I, and the people closest to me, cling to the distance run at the Plex, the numbers on the scale, the drunken hook up in a Mod, the pictures from freshman year that cause a smile and a cringe at the same time, that one C+ on my transcript, the dreams of going to med school, a friend’s story that induces envy so strong it feels tangible? How frequently do I try to remove myself from the reality of the present, become fixated on trivial things, and avoid accepting the way things really are–or should be?

The solution to loneliness may not be to cast away these troubling aspects of life and try to forget they ever happened, but to embrace them. It’s possible to welcome these seemingly negative experiences and traits into daily thoughts to help steer us in the right direction. The instructor of my Theology course compared this acceptance to the embracing of a troubled friend. If a friend came to you with a problem, you wouldn’t turn them away or tell them you were too busy to take care of them at the moment. You would work with them to find a solution, to alleviate their worries and make them feel right again.

I began to consider what would happen if I did the same thing with every facet of my life that I perceived to be negative–pulled it in, sat with it for a while, accepted it, found the root of its problems, brought forth the optimism that exists in the potential for improvement, and kept it close as a constant reminder of how much more there is to give and to receive from the world. According to Nouwen, “To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude.”

To me, this garden of solitude is more than just being able to sit in a room by myself and find contentment or peace of mind in the moment. It’s about being in a room with myself, looking at that person, and not experiencing the anxiety that comes with recognizing the mistakes that person has made, the imperfections of their character and appearance, or their potential for failure. It’s about not comparing and contrasting that person to anyone else, which is often so easy to do among the people in our closest and most significant relationships. Although it seems impossible at times, I have had to realize that no external forces–like a loved one or an extravagant favor–can give any sensation of being fulfilled, unless self-fulfillment is found first.

I’d be lying if I said that I knew the day I would sit in this state of solitude. The one thing I am sure of, however, is how much closer you can feel to that place when you realize you are never truly alone in the journey to get there. Yes, I will probably still buy you a drink at MA’s, but don’t be surprised if I ask you to buy me late night in return.

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