Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Making Sense of 2020
For Jonny Sun, loneliness felt like being an alien on a distant planet, alone in the universe. But when he shared those feelings online, he found a community of people who felt precisely the same way. A version of this segment was originally heard in the episode, Meditations On Loneliness.
About Jonny Sun
Jonny Sun has found many avenues for his writing and artwork. He is the author and illustrator of Everyone's A Aliebn When Ur A Aliebn Too and the New York Times best-selling illustrator of Gmorning, Gnight! by Lin-Manuel Miranda. He is a writer for the sixth season of the Netflix Original Series BoJack Horseman. He was also named one of TIME Magazine's 25 Most Influential People on the Internet of 2017.
Jonny's plays have been performed at the Yale School of Drama, Factory Theater in Toronto, Hart House Theater, and Theater Lab in Toronto, and his artwork has been exhibited at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, the Harvard Art Galleries, MIT, the Yale School of Architecture, New Haven ArtSpace, and the University of Toronto.
As a doctoral candidate at MIT and a creative researcher at the Harvard metaLAB, he studies social media, virtual place, and online community. He previously studied as an architect, at Yale, and engineer, at the University of Toronto.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, conversations that helped us make sense of 2020. And last winter, before we'd even begun to think about lockdowns and quarantines and social distancing, I read a great book - actually, a graphic novel.
JONNY SUN: (Reading) A spaceship appears seemingly out of nowhere, carrying the night sky with it. Out of the spaceship topples a gaggle of aliens, all looking exactly the same.
ZOMORODI: It was about a little alien called Jomny.
SUN: (Reading) Except one particular alien who looks slightly the same but also exactly different from all the other aliens.
ZOMORODI: This is writer Jonny Sun reading from his book "Everyone's A Aliebn When Ur A Aliebn Too."
SUN: (Reading) So you're leaving me here all alone? - asks the slightly different alien. Well, we will check on you in case you mess anything up, says the fifth alien in response. OK, says the slightly different alien, not reassured by that response at all.
ZOMORODI: In the story, Jomny is sent to Earth to study its creatures. And he feels afraid and lost.
SUN: (Reading) Eventually, Jomny goes from searching for the receding spaceship among the stars to simply watching the stars themselves. Jomny looks down at the ground, at the Earth. I feel alone, the alien says.
ZOMORODI: So Jomny begins to explore, and he meets all sorts of Earth creatures. And yet he still feels empty and invisible.
SUN: (Reading) Friend - F-R-I-E-N-D - friend. The bees and the flying caterpillar all fly away together into the sky, where Jomny cannot follow. I wish I had friends, Jomny says out loud.
ZOMORODI: This might sound like a kid's book, but it's actually a book for grown-ups, too, because Jomny's deep loneliness - well, it's something we all can relate to, especially this year.
SUN: Yeah. So Jomny is a character I created sort of out of a moment of intense loneliness in my own life. I had started my Ph.D. at MIT and was feeling very much like an alien and an outsider in this new place and in this new community. And I think the way I responded was sort of withdrawing and was to find more and more solitude, which I think, sometimes, is great. But I think it also - the combination of factors also led to an immense loneliness.
ZOMORODI: Do you remember what that felt like? Like, is it very clear in your mind?
SUN: Yeah, I think, sometimes, when you are experiencing loneliness, you feel like you are on this alien planet. And you are on this sort of - in this world that doesn't feel like anything you have known or you're familiar with. And I think one of the things that I'm always fascinated and try to interrogate about my own loneliness is how it feels like this immensity of nothingness can feel suffocating and can feel like there's so much weight on you at all times. Like, I remember reading about planets, where the gravity is different. Everything is pushing in on you, and you can't look at it. But somehow, all this sort of empty space around you is the thing that's causing all that weight.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
SUN: But I had a lifeline of sorts.
ZOMORODI: Here's Jonny Sun on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
SUN: I was writing jokes for years and years and sharing them on social media. And I found that I was turning to doing this more and more. Now, for many people, the Internet can feel like a lonely place. It can feel like this, a big, endless expanse of void where you can constantly call out to it, but no one's ever listening.
But I actually found a comfort in speaking out to the void. I found in sharing my feelings with the void, eventually, the void started to speak back. And it turns out that the void isn't this endless, lonely expanse at all. But instead, it's full of all sorts of other people also staring out into it and also wanting to be heard. Now, when someone shares that they feel sad or afraid or alone, for example, it actually makes me feel less alone, not by getting rid of any of my loneliness but by showing me that I am not alone in feeling lonely.
And as a writer and as an artist, I care very much about making this comfort of being vulnerable a communal thing, something that we can share with each other. I'm excited about externalizing the internal, about taking those invisible personal feelings that I don't have words for, holding them to the light, putting words to them and then sharing them with other people in the hopes that it might help them find words to find their feelings, as well.
For example, a few months ago, I posted this app idea for a dog walking service where a dog shows up at your door, and you have to get out of the house and go for a walk.
SUN: If there are app developers in the audience, please find me after the talk. Or I like to share every time I feel anxious about sending an email. When I sign my emails best, it's short for, I am trying my best, which is short for, please don't hate me - I promise I'm trying my best. Or my answer to the classic ice breaker - if I could have dinner with anyone dead or alive, I would. I am very lonely.
SUN: And I find that when I post things like these online, the reaction is very similar. People come together to share a laugh, to share in that feeling and then to disperse just as quickly. But...
SUN: ...Yes, leaving me once again alone (laughter). But I think, sometimes, these little gatherings can be quite meaningful. For example, when I graduated from architecture school and I moved to Cambridge, I posted this question. How many people in your life have you already had your last conversation with? And I was thinking about my own friends who had moved away to different cities and different countries, even, and how hard it would be for me to keep in touch with them.
But other people started replying and sharing their own experiences. Somebody talked about a family member they had a falling out with. Someone talked about a loved one who had passed away quickly and unexpectedly. Someone else talked about their friends from school who had moved away, as well. And eventually, we got this little, tiny microcommunity. It felt like this support group formed of all sorts of people coming together.
And I think every time we post online, every time we do this, there's a chance that these little microcommunities can form. There's a chance that all sorts of different creatures can come together and be drawn together. And, sometimes, through the muck of the Internet, you get to find a kindred spirit. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you get to meet another alien.
ZOMORODI: A few years ago, when Jonny Sun decided to open up on social media and share how lonely he was, it struck a chord. He got 600,000 Twitter followers. But more importantly, he ended up building a community.
SUN: At some point, I started tweeting about, like, going to therapy and talking to my therapist. And it was something that, for me, I think - I had never thought that therapy was, like, an option for me in a way. And then it was actually in - at MIT that I started seeing a therapist. But one of the most - like, the most meaningful types of messages I get on Twitter are when - I remember getting one tweet in particular that was someone who said, I grew up never knowing that therapy was an option for me, and I was terrified of reaching out and trying to get help and trying to go see a therapist. But seeing you tweet about your experiences kind of led me to think that it might help me. And so I booked my first therapy appointment. Stuff like that makes me - it makes me acknowledge how the stuff that you put online and the stuff that you put anywhere can have, like, these immense impacts on people's lives. When you start to realize there are people that share the same space as you, there's sort of, like, that natural connection.
ZOMORODI: And it sounds like you took that connection, combined with therapy, and you really found a way forward out of the loneliness.
SUN: I think so, yeah. I mean, it's hard to - it's always - I feel like it's always hard to say, like, oh, I, like - I solved it. I cured it. I defeated it.
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) No more lonely.
SUN: (Laughter) Exactly - because I think it's - I think that sort of thing is - my belief is that loneliness is, like, an intrinsic human state, and it's always going to be there. But for me, I think, the help is being able to understand how to process it and understand, like, the healthy ways that I can approach it, as opposed to - I think then if you start getting into those thoughts. Like, how do I cure loneliness, and how do I kind of defeat it? When it inevitably comes back, it's even more crushing. And I think I've had those thought processes, and I've been like, wow, I'll never feel lonely again. And then when it comes back, you're like, oh, no, now everything I've done is a lie (laughter).
ZOMORODI: I am feeling lonely again.
ZOMORODI: Man, you were gone. No, so it's...
ZOMORODI: ...Like making peace with it so that when lonely does show up, you're like, oh, hey, you. It's been a while.
SUN: Yeah, exactly. And it's like, oh, I understand this feeling. I know - I sort of am more aware of my way around it. I know sort of how I can talk about it. And I have people that I can share those feelings with. And I think, like, one of the big sort of, like, lies that loneliness tells you when it visits you is to say, like, you're the only person in the world who's feeling this way, and everyone else will think you are strange and weird for feeling this way. So never tell anyone about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SUN: Sometimes, that lie is, like, the hardest thing to fight against. But I think as you can work to break out of that mentality, I think it can help.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
SUN: When I was feeling particularly sad and hopeless about the world, I shouted out to the void, to the lonely darkness. I said, at this point, logging onto social media feels like holding someone's hand at the end of the world. And this time, instead of the void responding, it was people who showed up, who started replying to me and then who started talking to each other. And slowly this little, tiny community formed. Everybody came together to hold hands. And so, yes, even though life is bad and everyone's sad and one day we're all going to die, in the midst of it all, in these dangerous and unsure times, I think the thing that we have to hold on to is other people.
(Reading) Behind Jomny, all the animals and creatures of Earth gather closer together under the bright, twinkling, starry sky, talking to each other, hugging, laughing. Jomny turns around to have one last look at all the Earth creatures and is filled with happiness. Goodbye, Jomny whispers quietly. The spaceship takes off, and Jomny goes home, leaving behind the only place that the alien ever truly belonged.
ZOMORODI: That's writer and artist Jonny Sun. His book is called "Everyone's A Aliebn When Ur A Aliebn Too." I spoke to him in January of this year, and you can find his full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.