Thursday, June 24, 2004

Loneliness

Some things I've been reading have caused be to reflect a bit about being lonely. I thought I'd offer just a few comments off the top of my head about this, with no intention of offering a sermon, or an academic paper...just some stuff bouncing around in my head.

I suspect that loneliness is a state of being that is much more prevalent than we might think. Few of us will admit to suffering from it, either to ourselves or others. It sounds weak, even pitiful. Yet, I think many decisions and actions, especially during our free time, are driven by our attempt to escape this dark place.

The feelings that we identify as loneliness don't only bubble to the surface when we are alone. We can feel lonely in a crowd. These feelings are very similar to the longing for that elusive "something more" that I have spoken of previously; the feeling that something is wrong with us, and if we can just discover that something "out there," and get it "in here," we'll be fixed. Often, this longing is quite natural to us all, and can even be a positive motivation for personal growth. It does have a shadow side however, which would include addictive and compulsive behaviors.

We sometimes call this "longing for something more" by the term loneliness because that is the situation, or the symptom, by which such feelings are either triggered or identified. We notice the feeling of emptiness when alone, or when feeling somehow isolated from others by some invisible shield. If denied, and not met with some kind of counter action, such feelings can continue to allow us to fall even deeper into the dark pit of self-loathing and depression.

Let's talk about what we can do when we seem overwhelmed by loneliness. Let's begin with the situation of actually being alone, due to job or family situations beyond our control. Maybe another time I'll talk about loneliness in a crowd.

During my elementary school years, I spent 5 years confined to my bedroom. I did go to school each day, so the isolation was not complete. But, the long hours alone taught me a few things, which I have found helpful over the years.

1. Make friends with yourself. This means you have to accept yourself just as you are, and even begin to like yourself. Sometimes this means forgiving yourself for the things you have done wrong in the past. My experience is that replaying the past for too long when alone is usually deadly. This might also mean that you have to recognize that the negative messages you get from those around you about who you are, and your value as a person, are most likely wrong, or at least incomplete.

To entertain yourself, or as the cliche goes, to "be comfortable in your own skin," you have to accept yourself, warts and beauty marks together. Until you learn to be comfortable with yourself, you'll continue to be self-absorbed, and find it difficult to connect with others. Being comfortable in your own skin will allow you to get out of yourself; to engage with others, which is the obvious, and most healthy, cure for loneliness.

2. Use your imagination. Before being confined, I loved television, especially movies. I loved stories. After the isolation, at night in bed, I used to strain to hear the TV in the next room. Eventually, I gave up on that, and started playing out my own stories in my head until I fell asleep. The next night I'd pick up the story where I left off. I sailed the seven seas, discovered magical islands, won many battles, traveled into outer space, fought off monsters, saved more than a few damsels, built a few inventions, flew from treetop to treetop, and, of course, was elected President and saved the world.

When my own imagination seemed difficult to access, I fed off the imaginations of others. I discovered books; specifically novels, although the volumes of the encyclopedia I smuggled home from school were quite helpful as well. To this day, my primary self-description is that I am a reader. That's what I do. Can this become simply escapism? Yes, it can. Anything in excess can be harmful. But it can also stretch us and inform us as we begin to manifest some pieces of those imaginary worlds into concrete realities.

Writing things out is another good expression of the imagination. Keep a diary, or a journal. Don't worry about style or content. Just dump it all out. Be disciplined. Do it every day.

One note of caution regarding the imagination; I have found that reliving scenes from my past, and changing the script, is usually not a healthy use of my imagination. The "what if" game seems to feed the darkness.

3. Talk to God. That might sound terribly corny to those who are not spiritually inclined, but I don't want to dress this point up with fancy theological terms, or even cloak it in the more respectable attire of "prayer." I can't recall a time in my life when I wasn't aware of the existence of something, or someone, beyond myself. Maybe this is delusional, like having an invisible playmate. I really don't care. This belief has served me well, and has helped me get out of myself many times, so I think I'll hold on to it.

As a child, during times when it felt like I was disconnected to everyone and everything else, I'd talk to God. No, I didn't kneel and fold my hands. I didn't use KIng James language. I just talked. And back then, God used to talk back to me. This was before I became "sophisticated" enough to know that I wasn't supposed to admit that God talked to me, unless I wanted to end up in a straight jacket and injected with Thorazine. My memories are of lots of laughter, and gentle words that seemed to caress me and hold me close until I knew that everything was going to be alright.

Anyway, it has worked for me over the years. Keep in mind that you have to put empty places in the conversation, and sometimes wait a bit for your own stuff to quiet down before you can hear God's part of the conversation. And don't always expect words. Often, it seems more like a communication through feelings; "spirit crying out to spirit" kind of thing. And don't get hung up on "the right way" to do it. Just do it. If an eight year old boy, who hadn't been to church for many years, could do it, I imagine just about anyone can.

4. Care for a pet. I can't emphasize this enough. I happen to prefer dogs, but I've had cats, birds, hamsters, fish, and even a culture of protozoa! Besides the comfort of having another living being around, a pet demands that you get out of yourself. They have to be cared for. They have to be loved. Beyond that, pets can teach us beings with oversized brains a few things. An animal is not consumed with regretting the past and fretting about the future. Pets reminds us to live in this present moment. Which is a critical thing to remember; the only thing that is real is that which is contained in this present moment. And usually, in this moment, even when alone, all is well.

This is getting long, so I'd better move on. I need to mention a couple of further cautionary notes;

If possible, force yourself to engage in social events. Join a club (or even a church!), or a support group, take a class, or just get together with friends. Being alone for too long can cause us to become more and more passive in our response to life. Sometimes we have to make ourselves be pro-active. There is nothing wrong with being inclined towards being an introvert. But complete isolation is unhealthy for most of us.

For some, feelings of loneliness can be a symptom of severe depression. This is a condition that can't be dismissed lightly. Those who do not suffer from it cannot understand it. They will compare it to their own periodic blue funks. Depression can be the result of a chemical imbalance; a malfunction of the neurotransmitters, and can be relieved with the proper professional help, which may include medication. If loneliness is a condition that seems to be becoming life controlling for you, seek professional help.

You also may want to get a check up from your regular doctor. In The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong tells about suffering for many years from deep depression and feelings of alienation from others, which later in her life was finally diagnosed as a medical condition (I won't tell you which one, so as to not spoil the story for those inclined to read this excellent book).

Ok, enough rambling on this topic for now. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this. Keep in mind that the comments feature has no length limitations. Get creative. Ramble away!

J.

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