The Cure for Loneliness

The sun is shining on Olivia’s hair. We are on the courtyard of a university in Krakow. I sit on a bench, next to her wheelchair.

It’s early April. Spring warms up the university’s grey walls. Flowers are blossoming on the canopy. The grass, birds, and students around us seem to sparkle with joy. Olivia’s cheeks are pink, ripen in the sun.

My fingers pick up strains of her hazelnut hair, crossed them one over another to make a French braid. Her hair is thick and strong, alive in my hands. I am careful not to let out any loose strain. I want to make it very beautiful. I’m about to leave Krakow to come back to Vietnam. This is my goodbye gift for her.

Olivia is different than most girls. She sits on a wheelchair. When she speaks, she needs a few more seconds to complete her sentences. I don’t remember the term doctors use to call her condition - not that it matters.  

Olivia’s brother, my friend Andrea, is always beside her. He’s the most devoted brother I’ve ever seen. Still, being a man, making a French braid isn’t his strong suit.

Tracing her hair with my fingertips, I’m pleased by how the braid looks. Olivia is quiet, dreamily watches the rows of trees and the flow of people passing by.  

On the outside, Olivia and I can’t be more different: our eyes and skin color, the thickness of our hair, how our mind works, how we carry our bodies from place to place.

I have to admit that when I first glimpsed the shape of her wheelchair, I labeled her as “disable”. At that moment, in my throat, I felt a hint of pity. How ignorant I was!

But right now, as we are about to say goodbye, as I braid her hair under the sun, I don’t see a medical label, I see a woman, beautiful and brave and strong. We belong to each other as sisters, no matter the differences.

I’ve had the chance to travel to many places and see people who look and sound and act very differently from me. What I learned is: differences are never the real problem to connection.

The greatest barrier of human connection is the way our mind judges and labels.

When we meet someone, we mentally jot down on post-it notes words like: “rude”, “nice”, “dumb”, “smart”, “disable”, “gay”. We cover them in post-its. Very quickly, we can no longer see a human being. We only see our own judgements.

We hate, fear, resent, pity. Then we wonder why we are so lonely.

But as soon as we take the post-it notes down, one by one, they come clear to us: eyebrows, lips, ears, shoulders. In the spur of a moment, we experience a connection, we feel the love we didn’t know we had.

One day I was having dinner at my parents’ house. I noticed that I stuffed things in my mouth, chewed, swallowed like a robot. I was not there. I was lost in my mind, feeling all again like a 12-year old girl who ate in silence as her parents argued over a bowl of fish sauce.  

I took a deep breath and got out of the trance. I became present. I blinked a few times to awake my eyes. I lifted them from the plate of steam pork and looked at my father’s face.

I was surprised!

His hair was much whiter than I thought. The dots on his face were punctured. His eyes were small, swollen. The skin around them wrinkled.

My father had become so old. Suddenly, a wave of love came over me. I wanted to cry.

He smirked at the TV’s news, commented on the government latest policy, which he thought was stupid.

But I didn’t hear his complaints for feel his cynicism. I felt his presence, his soul. The beautiful thing that laid underneath all the burdens he carried, like a diamond in the coal.

That night with my father and that afternoon with Olivia, my soul touched the soul another human being. Something so complex, so multidimensional, so glorious - it’s almost too beautiful to bear.

If you ever feel lonely and crave human love, sit by yourself at a cafe. Take a deep breath, feel your feet on the ground.

Pay attention to the body will help you get out of your noisy mind so you can feel into your soul. To connect with others’ souls, you need to connect to yours.

Notice how your mind puts sticky notes on the people around you. You may catch yourself judging the woman who stands in line at the cashier as “pretty” or “ugly” or “annoying” or “nice”.

Take a deep breath again. Stop jotting down words on your mental post-it notes. In fact, drop the post-it note altogether.

Notice her sandals, the shape of her fingers, the mark on her right arm.

It doesn’t matter whether she is happy or sad. Notice the look on her face and the way she places her hands. Gentle attention without judgment is a great form of love.

When you want to quench your thirst, drink a glass of water. Similarly, when you want to feel love, love.

(Hint: “Love is a verb.”)

Connection is less about who we see and more about how we see.

With a clear mind an a soft heart, you may feel like me on that day in April 2011, dumbfounded by the love that lived all around me.


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