Grateful for this reflection by Erin Jean Warde.

I try to set aside Friday evenings to cook a lovely meal that I enjoy cooking—for one. On most evenings of the week, I cook food I don’t really want to eat, because it doesn’t seem worth it to spend so much time on recipes, mise en place, and multiple steps when I’m just going to eat it beside five empty chairs at a dinner table too large for my single life. (Or, to be more confessional, when I’m just going to eat it in my house clothes in front of Netflix. In bed. Because that’s where Netflix is.) A nice meal by myself on a Friday evening is one of many ways that I am learning to appreciate being alone.

I’ve been a fan of Conan O’Brien since middle school. A few weeks ago, I wanted something to enjoy while I cooked, and I was thrilled to hear about his new podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend, when he was a guest on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert. My assumption was that it would be about how he “needs a friend,” but that the general demeanor would prove that he has plenty of friends, and he just needed a segue into talking about how life is going for him and for his guest. I assumed the friendship aspect was mostly a gimmick, but a gimmick I would be interested in.

It’s easy for me to imagine through reading his Twitter feed, after watching his show, and from following him on Instagram, that Conan is heavily connected in the television and comedy world, validated by fans, and pulling all this off enough to have a wife and children. Rationally, I know it is ridiculous to essentially look at a person’s resumé and make assumptions about their personal life. Rationally, I know that celebrities face the same challenges as anyone else, maybe even with a harder edge, as the public eye tends to be adoring until the minute it is exacting in its cruelty. Rationally, I know that Conan is, in fact, just telling a joke.

In the podcast trailer, Conan says this:

Hey, this is Conan O’Brien, and uh, this is my new podcast—Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend. Let me explain. I’ve been doing a TV show for 25 years, I’ve done over 4,000 episodes with celebrity guests, you’d think I’d have friends. But I don’t. I’m actually being kind of honest. All of my friends are people that work for me. Celebrities come on the show, they pretend to be really nice to me, but when the show’s over, they get in a black SUV, and they leave.

The goal of the podcast is to invite these celebrities back into a room, to talk to them in a more comfortable environment, to see if maybe they might become a “true friend.” The conversations are, so far, sometimes vaguely about friendship, other times more directly about belonging, and always cushioned in self-depreciation and quick wit. As a proselytizer of St. Brené Brown, I hear this as yet another way to enter the arena of vulnerability. To be a public figure yourself, to invite another public figure into the room, saying, “I know you usually get into your SUV and leave when we’re done talking, but this time, would you like to make plans to have dinner sometime with my wife and I?” While it can be laughed off as just another bit, whether we like it or not, it provokes a knowing laugh.

The concept is full of equal parts vulnerability and courage, as Conan has created the perfect environment to face the joy of relationship or the pain of rejection. I’ve spent most of my life trying to hotwire relationships while I dodge rejection, all the while knowing that I’ll never receive the gift of true relationship if I don’t lean into the risk of rejection. The willingness to take on the risk for the sake of the gift, even with the safety of humor, makes Conan O’Brien my hero.

The question of finding companionship—both friendly and/or romantic—is not new, and a desire for belonging is the great common denominator of people. The idea of exploring loneliness, but with the safety of humor, is something I know all too intimately. It is much easier for me to make the first joke about my failed relationships (and seemingly hopeless chance to ever fix the cycle) than it is for me to answer the question, “So, are you seeing anyone?” Humor gives me the opportunity to expose my pain on my terms, because hearing a knowing laugh is easier than answering with a difficult truth, though it is truth either way. Hearing a knowing laugh to my painful truth actually serves as an act of compassion; a knowing laugh suggests that in my loneliness I’m not alone.

For the second episode, he interviewed Kristen Bell:

Conan: “I work pretty hard, I have a busy life… I have a wife, I have kids, so what happens is I, I realize, where are my pals that I hang out with? Where’s my gang? Where’s my posse?”

Kristen: “You’ve got to carve time for that.”

Conan: “Yeah, but then, I also need people that are willing to do it.”

The question of loneliness is not whether or not people exist—we know people exist. It is the question of whether or not we will ever be enough for them. Kristen and Conan keep talking, and she muses that maybe people on his payroll make the best friends for a simple reason: they have a shared goal. The conversation blossoms naturally into so much more: marriage, parenting, faith, work. But, before it is any of those things, it is the truth of that one desire, the desire to make friends, the desire to belong. Before it is anything else, it is the uncomfortable truth that we fear whether or not anyone else will ever be willing to put up with us.

No matter what we think will be the best avenue for relationship—church, work, school, happy hours, clubs, volunteering—these avenues for relationship can crumble. Restaurants eventually bring you the check, happy hours issue a last call, clubs and organizations shift away from following your opinions on leadership and vision. And if a shared goal makes the best friendships, the Church can often seem heavy-handed in its efforts to ruin them. The shared goal of the body of Christ is as defined as the critiques of its members from its members. All you have to do is read the comments section of a church publication if you think I’m being dramatic. All proposed avenues for relationship change and break over time, and we cannot place the full weight of our desire for belonging on organizational shoulders.

Kristen: “Here’s my theory about why you think you don’t have friends, because I personally know a lot of people that love you, okay? And your time, your available time in your day, is not the reason that you don’t have friendships. Well, it is, but maybe you don’t do enough self-care.”

Conan: “I don’t.”

Later, Kristen cuts to it, as funny music plays over a harsh truth: “Maybe the other people aren’t the answer. Maybe you’re the answer. Maybe you need to become friends with yourself.”

The crux of the issue for me is that I know I will never be able to truly love anyone else if I don’t first surrender to loving God and myself. I am finding that the most routine and grounding parts of the day are also the loneliest: the first look into the mirror, a home so quiet that its settling can startle me, a single place setting at a dinner table for six. I want more than anything to run after external forces that pretend to reciprocate, all the while knowing that the capacity for true relationship will only ever be born out of that hardest place, that stifled knowing laugh that can’t help but break through. In truth, the hardest parts of each day are where I feel the breadth of holiness: a mirror that shows me something God loves, a house quiet enough to hear even a hushed God, a table with room to spare.

In a society where we are becoming all the more comfortable with throwing hand grenades from behind the shelter of our screens, it should matter to us that we are listening to the truth of loneliness from the mouth of someone who, as he suggests, shouldn’t have this problem. Whether he is giving us a bit or offering us his soul, the truth within the joke is greater than his intention. Because the truth is that none of us are exempt from the ache we feel when we fear we don’t belong, nor are we able to resist the comfort when we finally feel like someone is willing to put up with us.

I would be wise to remember, as I often mistakenly look through my perception of the curated lives of strangers, that everyone might be just as lonely as I am. This perception, as sinful as any other way that I distance myself from others, will always serve as a barrier between myself and the chance that someone might convince me I’m enough for them. My judgment that others don’t understand what this feels like will always silence my knowing laugh—the gift I could offer to remind someone else they are not alone.

There is no recipe that will ever take the sting off of looking over a single dinner plate to an empty chair. But in the meantime, it means something to know that I’m never alone in my loneliness. After all, even Conan O’Brien needs a friend.