“Loneliness will sit over our roofs with brooding wings” – Bram Stoker.
I was feeling down the other day. When that happens I often have no problem chatting to friends about why, but this time I felt the tight protective feeling that means BIG EMOTIONS are being felt, squashed, and I’m not sure I want to face them. I didn’t even really know why I was feeling so down (ok, I was sick, busy, stressed – probably enough reasons) but when I was talking to a friend and saying ‘I’m fine, no really” it suddenly came out. “I just feel really lonely”.
It’s a really hard thing to admit to someone, partly because you don’t want them to feel that suddenly they are obliged to step into the breach. It’s also hard because deep down it can feel like ingratitude for what you do have. It can also feel like you’ve failed.
A desire to avoid seeming ungrateful, or being aware that really you’re better off than others, can effectively keep admissions of loneliness tucked right back in that tight little ball in your chest. It can also keep people from admitting more serious struggles with depression or anxiety. I know that I have lots of friends. I know my family are amazing. I have the best sons. But I get lonely. Should I? Some would say no. But I’ve long lived by the rule that everyone’s troubles are valid. It’s harder to apply that to myself, of course, but what is painful for one person, regardless of whether or not others think they’d have the same pain in the same situation, is still painful.
I have shared custody. When I don’t have my boys I push myself into my work, into other things. I have lots to do and a very busy life.
But I miss them.
I have great friends and family and relish the fact that when I’m with them they make me smile just by being themselves.
I still feel disconnected sometimes.
I enjoy being single, being by myself, and the fact that I can do what I want, when I want.
But I get lonely.
There’s a great quote by Paul Tillich that I came across the other day:
Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone, and solitude expresses the glory of being alone
And that brings me to my other point – admitting loneliness can feel like you’ve failed. It feels like either your loneliness is supposed to be only temporary until someone magically arrives to fix it all up, or you’re supposed to relish the ‘glory of being alone’. Self sufficiency. Celebration of being single – “Spinster Chic”.
That’s fine, and most of the time I feel I can do that – self-sufficiency isn’t hard all the time. But as U2 sings in Every Breaking Wave:
every shipwrecked soul, knows what it is
To live without intimacy
Intimacy. For me that equals connectedness. Those little moments that exist between two people and are not shared with the rest of the world. These lyrics resonate pretty strongly with me. And you can be in a relationship and feel lonely for precisely this reason – the toxicity or damage in the relationship leaves you a shipwrecked soul. You can both lie on the same bed every night but feel so desperately far apart and lonely. It’s a cold and despairing feeling and it eats away at your sense of self.
I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone.
The American Psychological Association have recently (August 2017) presented research that claims that social isolation and loneliness may be greater public health issues than obesity. They state that connectedness to others is a fundamental human need and has an impact on physical wellbeing as well as psychological. This is shown in a recent viral video of a grandpa cuddling infants in the premature baby ward. He spends hours holding infants who would otherwise be left alone. In the video, the medical staff describe the positive impact this contact has on the infants – they grow at a better rate, they are healthier and stronger. They thrive.
We live in an age of superficial over-connectedness, where social media can be both a blessing and a curse. It can allow people to connect, to feel not so alone. To feel that there’s at least one person out there who cares that they woke up unhappy that day or who celebrates their silly posts. But the superficial sense of connectedness can also mean that real life opportunities are not pursued. It’s easier to simply not.
Ultimately, loneliness is not something that you can fix just by deciding to boost your social life (although that can help). Changing it is not always dependent on you being happy in your own company either (you can super like yourself and still be lonely). I think, in the end, sometimes you simply need to ride it out, knowing that it’s a feeling, and feelings come and go. But allowing yourself permission to feel lonely, to not see it as a shameful or guilty thing, can take some of the sting out.
And for those who are isolated as well as lonely? That’s when community is important. Like the grandpa who cuddles the babies in the prem ward. Keep an eye out for those in your community who are alone. Smile at them. Talk to them. Build a web of connectedness.
And if you’re lonely? You’re not alone in that.