Last week when I was really lonely, I felt that I was the only person in the world who ever felt it. That’s what loneliness is all about. If we feel connected to people, even other lonely people, we wouldn’t feel alone anymore.” -Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg.
“Loneliness” is the focus of this narrative. Why? There’s plenty of evidence that after almost three years of being locked into the grip of COVID, political upheaval, economic uncertainty, and the loss of family and friends, an epidemic of loneliness has been one result.
In a sense, loneliness today is like the proverbial “elephant in the room” in that we know or suspect that it’s there, yet it rarely gets discussed let alone addressed. Of all the problems that confront us, loneliness is often brushed under the carpet. We don’t like to admit it. In a very real sense, many are ashamed to be lonely. Just ask yourself when was the last time someone said to you, “hey, I’m lonely!”
Now I had a loneliness confirmation moment recently. Actually, it was two. But they both landed at the same place – the largely silent epidemic of loneliness.
The first moment was a conversation with “Connie,” an events specialist whose job is to coordinate activities at four different elder care centers. She told me about the number of senior citizens who are elated when she shows up at their center.
“Several said that in addition to being terrified of contracting COVID, they’re so lonely that they can’t wait to go to their doctor’s office for checkups.”
My second moment happened the next day when my “Martha”, a college professor, spent three hours across from me at a local restaurant and talked about how invigorating it was to get out of her house after COVID and the recent loss of her husband of many years.
“It’s so difficult being home alone with so many visual reminders of my husband. If it wasn’t for my kids, I don’t know how I would have gotten through all this.”
Okay, it didn’t take me long to connect the dots between these two conversations and to scores of other people who are likely struggling with loneliness these days. Loneliness can be an aching admission to make, especially to friends and family.
Masking loneliness is an exhaustive camouflage. Truth is that a person can feel lonely with a smile on their face and even when in a crowd. In fact, being in the middle of a crowd can make some people feel even lonelier if they feel unable to connect with others around them.
To be clear, being alone is not always a bad thing. Allowing ourselves to be lost in our thoughts while alone can lead to stress reduction, relaxation, rejuvenation, and personal reflection. So, folks who are alone aren’t necessarily lonely.
“If you learn to really sit with loneliness and embrace it for the gift that it is…an opportunity to get to know you to learn how strong you really are to depend on no one but you for your happiness…you will realize that a little loneliness goes a long way in creating a richer deeper more vibrant and colorful you,” concludes Mandy Hal
Now although not all loneliness’ are the same, “emotional” and “social” loneliness’ appear to be the most common:
“Emotional loneliness” arises from a feeling that you lack relationships. It can be felt when you need someone to talk to about something going on in your life but feel that there is no one available to contact.
“Social Loneliness” occurs when you don’t feel a sense of belonging to a group. When you walk into a situation and don’t recognize anyone familiar, a feeling of social loneliness may wash over you if you don’t typically feel comfortable approaching new people.
So, how can we combat the plague of loneliness in our midst? Well, I haven’t the space to exhaust all of the resources I found that address loneliness, so I’ll highlight a few that jumped out for me.
Of course, the most obvious – and not all that easy – is to establish and maintain a support system. Maximize your chances by reaching out and being willing to be the one to suggest a meet-up or get together.
As allies, we could be aware of those situations when people may experience loneliness. Chief among them are people like “Martha” who lost a loved one, or senior citizens who are sometimes tucked away and forgotten about in senior centers. In those situations, a periodic call or, even better, a visit could work wonders for them.
And keep in mind that young people who are introverts and seem to be alone most of the time can be targets for bullying and vulnerable to recruitment by gangs, etc.
In the end, understand that there’s nothing abnormal about loneliness. We have all experienced or will experience it at some point. The challenge is how we and help others respond to it productively.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, Hometown Advantage, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award.