I thought I was the only one. But a quick search for loneliness found two articles, just published today. These cite the health issues that increase when people feel isolated and alone. One statistic cited “The health risks of feeling lonely, as well as actual social isolation, surpass those associated with obesity.”
While I value research, I find these kinds of articles can do more damage than good, as they can increase the fear we already have. Research is showing that how we think about things has a huge impact on how, and if, these risks actually materialize.
No one wants to be lonely. It’s not a matter of if we’ll feel lonely, but more a matter of when it will happen. When it happens most of us won’t admit it. When I feel lonely, I feel weak, unloved, on my own, separate. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and being with my loneliness. I’ve had to turn it upside down and inside out. Here are three lessons I’ve discovered along the way.
1. Being lonely is not the same as being alone.
When I looked up the definitions of loneliness, I didn’t like them. They all define lonely as bad and undesirable. Being lonely can have a feeling of separation, but that can only happen in contrast to feeling connected. These are feelings, not physicality. I know I have been in a room full of people and felt completely disconnected. Also, I have been by myself and felt incredibly connected and content.
Usually, it’s my mindset that determines my perspective about connection or separation. I can tell myself some amazing stories when I am not feeling my best about how I have suffered…as if I am the first person to feel betrayed, or abandoned by family or friends. So often when I have reached out to others, I am shocked to discover how many other people feel this way. Are we all feeling that separated? Yes. Every time I garner the courage to reach out, the person is so glad to hear from me and I remember it is a two-way street. Reconnecting is just a phone call away.
2. Feeling lonely is okay. Welcome it as a guest and a guide.
Sunday nights are always a time the loneliness wave crashes over me. My children go to their Dad’s house and suddenly things are quiet. I’m not sure if it’s a memory from my childhood and having to go to school the next day or something else. I love my work and so it’s not that I am dreading what Mondays bring. For a while, I tried to make sure I was busy, out to dinner or watching Game of Thrones at a friend’s house to be away from home. Even with these distractions, it would still creep up on me. The more I tried to push it away, the stronger it would crash on my shore. No….No, not again. The undertow would pull me down.
Finally, I decided to just expect it, to welcome and entertain it as one of my favorite poems, The Guest House, by Rumi, suggests.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi
I was sharing this feeling of missing my children with a friend, lamenting how I’d thought by now I’d stop feeling lonely when they left. “Do you really want to stop missing your children?” he asked. On Sunday nights I sit to write. When I stay with the feelings, I softened, and this vulnerable state reveals rich discoveries within my words. Loneliness is a beautiful guide. I have realized I must have the courage to be alone to hear her quiet wisdom.
3. Being lonely is believing that something awesome is over and that I don’t trust the future.
Just a few moments ago, I made the acceptance deposit payment for my son, my oldest child, for college. These last few weeks, I’ve been on a roller coaster of feeling he was not ready. I thought I was doing okay but realized I am going to miss him beyond words. I did not want to admit that perhaps that I am not ready. I was not going to be one of those clingy, sad, mopey parents. But I I love my son and I feel him pulling away. He is resisting all my suggestions, and that is exactly what is supposed to be happening. I have been his guide and teacher and he too has been mine. I can’t believe the days have flowed and here we are at the end of this chapter. Have I prepared him well? Is he ready to go it on his own? Am I ready?
When I relax, and reconnect with myself, with my own inner voice that lives under my mother fear, I know we have done our best with him. He is ready to take his next steps out into the world. He is needed. His leaving is an end and a beginning. I can marvel about how time has passed and pause at all the growth we all have made since his birth. I have to let go.
I’m choosing to believe in the future. Deep down I trust that there is more joy ahead. I may have more time alone as he heads off to college. As I stop resisting it feels like watching the rushing waters on a beach as they recede back into the sea, leaving scattered glistening shells. I’m choosing to trust that tucked inside each shell are tiny promises of more joy ahead.