Loneliness. NOT a Dirty Word.

He’s usually ferociously funny, and direct. But the other evening when I received an email from a writer friend, his words were meandering and unguarded.

Alone time provides for introspection and assessment, but...He wrote of his relationship, his co-worker on leave, his child who was staying with the other parent for the week.

He’s a single dad. When he mentioned feeling isolated, I could relate, particularly as a writer working in a home office. More than anything, I could feel his loneliness, though he never used the word.

Happy face culture

We live in a land of put-on-your-happy-face. We set the mask in place in the morning, then greet the world. If we want smooth sailing – and a chance at “success” – we maintain it.

Can’t breathe in there under that mask? Suck it up! It’s euphemism time, and that means presenting a chipper tone and your best bright-white smile. If you slip, you may be forgiven if you confess: “I’m a little tired today” or even “I’m a little down.” But that’s as far as it goes. We’re expected to hide our true feelings, especially loneliness.

Granted, there’s a time and place for everything. Don’t spill your emotions to a client, a boss, a nosy colleague, and don’t do it over cocktails on a first date – not if you’d like a second! But we’ve set aside so much authenticity in our culture, including our right to a full spectrum of feelings – and that isn’t progress.

Isolation

Those of us who perform our jobs in isolation – artists, writers, an increasing number of remote workers – may feel cut off. Some of us intentionally close ourselves off; it’s necessary seclusion in order to be productive.

Isolation may also be the result of medical or related restrictions that keep us tied to our homes or bed. We stay at a distance from others, because we must, or so we don’t make them uncomfortable. Living and loving with chronic pain are particularly challenging.

Isolation is not exclusive to adults. Kids can be cruel to each other during those tween and teen years, with the perpetual peer group shuffle, rapidly changing bodies, and searching for who they are. This is fertile ground for isolation, loneliness, and bouts of depression.

Loss

Following divorce, we often cut ourselves off so we can lick our wounds and heal. Sometimes, friends walk away leaving us even more isolated as we process waves of changes in self-perception, unsettling financial futures, and plenty of worries about our children. It’s hard enough shifting from couple status to single status, and working through the grieving process. Personal and social elements that further banish us to some unforeseen aisle – at least for a time – can be devastating.

Coping with job loss involves a special kind of isolation, and a lot more than trying to stretch a dollar across an indefinite period of unemployment.

We lose social acceptance and our network of co-workers. Self-esteem plummets. We may pull away from friends in embarrassment, or due to lack of funds to fully participate in a world we used to inhabit.

And if job loss and marital problems hit at the same time? Is divorce inevitable? What about job loss during divorce? What about the isolation of relocation or empty nest, timed with marital dissolution? Then it’s a double whammy, a triple whammy, each loss exacerbated by disconnection from those you rely on, who once relied on you, who may give your life meaning and purpose – or at the very least, shape your days and nights.

Coping with the loss of a loved one? You’ve got a long process of grieving ahead, and loneliness. I’m not here to compare the pain of losing a spouse to death versus to divorce. But in divorce, you often carry blame and stigma, which adds to the isolation.

Whatever the reason – excessive isolation plays tricks on the mind. It eats away at the spirit. We get lonely.

Solitude

Solitude is not isolation, though it’s root (soli) means alone.

In my harried universe, solitude is good. It’s a rare commodity, and furnishes reflection time, focus, and productivity. Especially with the demands on my schedule as a solo mom, constantly trying to cobble together a living like so many others in our country. In my case, I’m handicapped by the three O’s: Overqualified, Overeducated, and Over… shall we say 45, and leave it at that?

Alone

Alone is not a dirty word any more than loneliness is. It may be a choice, even a gift. Unlike solitude, “alone” has no particular connotation except being by yourself, perhaps choosing that state to find a place of rest, to refill the well of creativity, or even to do as we please.

Then it’s terrific! Our alone time is a respite from the usual hectic demands.

But when we don’t choose to be alone, or if it lasts too long, then we find ourselves taking up residence in Lonelyville.

Lonely

With too much time alone, or even solitude, I feel disconnected. Loneliness sets in. So do other, darker feelings that lead to depression and withdrawal, which in turn leads to more loneliness.

Most of us know what it is to feel lonely in a crowd. Some of us know what it is to feel lonely in a couple. I see the word “one” sitting at the center of “lonely” – as if we can’t help but confront our solo state when all we want is to feel connected.

Loneliness is not shameful

Why are we ashamed to admit we’re lonely? If we always wear the mask that everything is “fine,” how can we let others in, and wouldn’t that ease the loneliness? And if we are lonely, must we blame ourselves? Can’t we look at contemporary society and recognize how many social and institutional constructs reinforce isolation?

Can’t we look at divorce, at families spread across the continent or farther, at the technologies that facilitate communication yet sometimes leave us wanting? Why do we stigmatize loneliness? Don’t we all feel lonely some of the time?

Get off the island!

In “isolation” I see the the word isle. We strand ourselves on an island, hoping for rescue.

Get off the island! Leave your house, your apartment, your room! Chat with the dry cleaner, your neighbor puttering in the yard, the woman who makes your latte at Starbucks, the guy at the laundromat. Connect to your online communities. Step outside yourself and back into the world where you are forced to talk, to listen, and to give.

In the meantime, stop blaming yourself for feeling lonely. We all want to share our lives, to trust and experience intimacy, to be part of families and caring communities. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s the most natural thing in the world.

 

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Comments

  1. As usual, you hit very important and relatable point with this column. Or should I call it “blog?” I think blog is just over-used nowadays.

    We all experience loneliness at various times. But, as you say, wearing our sadness on our shoulders and showing it to the world just won’t work and will isolate you further. A man I greatly respect, Dennis Prager, has a regular talk show that is mostly politics, but he has a dedicated hour on Happiness, inspired by his book, “Happiness is a Serious Problem” in which he really examined what makes us happy and unhappy. He differentiates between “fun” and “happiness” saying the things that bring us fun are very temporal while the things that bring us true happiness often involve a lot of hard work (e.g. raising kids, work, college, etc.).

    But, his biggest point and the one he opens every happiness show with is that it is our moral imperative to “act happy” even if you don’t feel it. The happy make the world a better place and the unhappy are usually the ones who do the most damage, in small and larger ways (it’s hard to imagine either Stalin or Hitler were particularly happy men).

    Men, like your friend, can get even more isolated given the gender differences. When men get older, and this is a generality so there are exceptions, and especially when they marry and have children, they tend to lose their closer male friends while women tend not to. Add divorce (with kids) into the mix and the man is really on that “isle” you mention.

    That is why there is a burgeoning men’s movement and I’m a part of it. My men’s group is invaluable to me and sustained me through my ugly divorce and helped me work through the issues in my next relationship when I might have bailed. I’m now married to that woman and I credit these men with getting us there. Yes, it’s work (especially the second time around), but she’s worth it.

    Sorry for the long comment. I wrote a column about male isolation which you can find here. I’d suggest to those men out there that reading my blogs and columns might be helpful, so here’s the link to my website (my column is called “A Dad’s Point-of-View”) and to that specific column, entitled “Do Men Have Strong Emotional Support in Their Lives?”

    Here’s that link:

    http://www.momlogic.com/2009/10/just_a_guy_with_a_lot_of_screens_brice_sallan.php

    And, here’s the link to my website:

    http://brucesallan.com/index.php/home

    Forgive me for schilling my work, but your column just was too close to home. I could write literally a book on it. I love the style of your writing, btw, and you leaven heavy issues with humor which always makes it easier to “hear.”

    Bruce Sallan

  2. I love this post. I have felt so many of the feelings you describe here. Divorce, job loss, money issues, single parenthood, parents moving away, it makes you stronger and actually ‘better at being alone.” Thank you for the perspective.

  3. There are lots of people working from home these days, that’s a good point. It’s so easy to become isolated and remote. It can be said that some people need less human interaction in their lives than others. Nevertheless, all people need at least a bit. When I’m not taking care of the kids I’m siting on the computer. I sometimes forget to get outside and meet people and talk. My boys and I, since we homeschool, have to make a special effort to get out daily to see what’s happening in the world. We’re not depressed people, but I can tell that without daily interaction that it could be a slippery slope. Thanks!

  4. Solitude can be lonely when it’s thrust upon you. I try to remember that we are all connected. Universe means “one song”. Feel happy and grateful for all that surrounds you, including the triumphs of others, and loneliness often dissolves back into the nothingness from which it came.

  5. Loneliness is viewed negatively by most of the Positive Attitude Culture. Admitting it is a negative statement to many, instead of a transparent evaluation of a current state of affairs. While I believe that you must act the way you want to feel before you actually feel it, I also think there are times when living in denial is just not a healthy thing to do.

    Loneliness is real. If we are to be authentic people then admitting this in the appropriate venues to the appropriate and safe people is a positive step toward dealing with and healing our pain.

    Sometimes, we are most lonely even when surrounded by those we love and who love us. But…to admit that is just not…well…positive.

    Of course, who wants the Eeyore lifestyle all the time anyway? Bleh. My approach? Admit honestly to myself the current state of affairs, feel it deeply if necessary, but then move on. Wallowing only wastes time and time is life.

    All good thoughts here and comments too!

  6. BigLittleWolf says:

    I’m sorry you’ve had to go through these things, too. I hate thinking about anyone going through these losses. They’re very challenging, and yes, they do make us strong. And sometimes being alone is very helpful. But let’s face it – a nice balance of alone time and people we love would be perfect, wouldn’t it? If only…

  7. BigLittleWolf says:

    The homeschooling must be a whole challenge in and of itself. I’m guessing you connect with other homeschooling families – not only for your boys, but for yourself – for a sense of community. Otherwise, it really can be a slippery slope, as you say.

  8. BigLittleWolf says:

    “Universe means one song.” That’s perfect. Thank you.

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