The word alone most of the time merges with loneliness. The very thought of being lonely makes most of us shudder. What is about being alone that makes us feel lonely and brings despair into our hearts? Well, from an evolutionary standpoint, we evolved to be part of a “tribe.” Our very physical survival depended on being with others. To be abandoned, left behind by the tribe to fend for oneself, was tantamount to a decree of death.
In fact, for most of us, our infancy and childhood are marked by our parents and our peer groups. They may not be the healthiest of relationships, and rarely are, but we are part of a tribe. Our physical survival is assured as our parents put a roof over our head, food on the table, and clothe us. Some of us, the very, very lucky few, are born under the right star and get to experience unconditional love and joy. But, eventually, like birds thrown out the nest to fly, we seek our independence. We move on to be our own person. However, for most of us, this simply means that we seek to be adopted by a different tribe. Be it the tribe at the college dorm, or class mates, or work mates, or bar mates, and eventually “love”, or at least “sex”, mates.
While we may think we have left the maternal nest to achieve autonomy and independence, really we have only shifted our tribal affiliations. We may look at others around us and see them as “independent” and distinct from us. We may try to momentarily forget that we are a social species dependent upon others, not only to survive (i.e., our parents from the moment we are born to, for some of us, the day they die). After all our survival is dependent on our collective abilities, not our individual might. And without others, how could we define ourselves? For without others to mirror us, to let us know what we want to be, what we like and don’t like, how would we know who we are? So, are these others we see surrounding us truly “independent”? Aren’t they, as we are, looking to fit into a tribe? To be protected, taken care of, accepted? Ultimately, aren’t they, as we are, seeking to love and be loved?
According to a recent Gallup poll, today some 50% of all adults are living alone, up from 22% in the 1950s. More than 50% of marriages end in divorce, and more than 5 million adults younger than 35 are single, while we get married at an older age than ever (See, The New Yorker – The Disconnect). Yet, single dating sites proliferate like rag weeds in the summer. Our world is more connected, at least electronically, than ever thanks to Facebook, email, text, etc. But the more electronically “connected” we become, it seems the more “disconnected” from each other we have become. Have we lost the ability to communicate? To interact at a deeper level than a casual “hello”? After all, communication is believed to be more than 80% body language and voice tonality, neither of which is carried via text or Facebook regardless of how many emoticons we provide. Is technology forcing upon us, or creating upon us, a world of superficiality where we are unable to connect with each other in meaningful ways? In ways that allow us to love and be loved? Being able to text your “friends” on a Saturday night while sitting in an empty apartment or guzzling down beers at the local drinking spot, is far from being connected to a healthy relationship. As Eric Klinenberg wrote in his new book “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone“, I wonder if we are creating “a secret society of people who live and die alone.”
Is it so “strange” then that being alone is equated with loneliness? After all, our books and movies, and even our TV shows (at least those of olden years such as The Brady Bunch, and even modern ones such as How I Met Your Mother) extol the virtues of love and depict single people as individuals quaffing ice cream or guzzling wine in front of the flickering TV set. In fact, in the 1980s polls indicated that about 20% of people felt lonely at any given time. Today, that number has doubled to some 40%.
Do some, perhaps most, of us seek solace in alcohol, drugs, sex (a way to be touched and feel worthy), some of these or all of these? Do they provide a Band-Aid to cover our wounds, our lack of self-esteem, our feeling of loneliness, even if for a moment in time, and even if we know these come at a very high price in the end?
Why do we stigmatize loneliness? With do some of us feel lonely, regardless of the number of Facebook “friends”? Why do we still equate loneliness with being a “loser”? Do we still consider someone who is lonely as a “weak” person? And, in so doing, do we deny our loneliness to ourselves and others. We put on a brave front. We tell ourselves and others that we’re fine. We’re “over her” or “over him.” We’re “happy” to be alone (and some of us are). We don’t “need” anyone (and some of us don’t). And for those who are alone but not lonely, I scream from rooftops: Bravo! You have achieved self-love. You no longer depend on someone to make you happy. The sad part, perhaps, is that that’s when you are most likely to be in an ideal relationship which you are no longer seeking.
But to me, denying that we are lonely makes about as much sense as denying that we are hungry or thirsty. Loneliness is truly painful. In fact, medical science has shown that feeling lonely is a major risk factor for an early death. Science has also shown that feeling lonely creates isolation from other people as we go into a self-preservation mode. We tend to care less about the issues of other people. We tend to be less giving, less emphatic. And, yet, a known “solution” to feeling of loneliness is to help others. Volunteer at a local kitchen, or hospital, or Boys and Girls Club, etc. Give of yourself. Be useful to the tribe you feel isolated from. Seek “real” friends (no, Facebook friends don’t count) that you can share your feelings with and, more importantly, who will empathize and provide loving touches without which we not only do not grow emotionally, but I digress (the subject of how many loving touches we need to grow emotionally is the subject of a different and upcoming post). If you have a supportive family, seek solace within them. But by all means, let’s stop feeling sorry for those who are alone. And let’s also stop equating being alone with being lonely. One has nothing to do with the other.
Let me leave with you a wonderful poem for you to ponder:
Song of Quietness
Drink deep, drink deep of quietness,
And on the margins of the sea
Remember not thine old distress
Nor all the miseries to be.
Calmer than mists, and cold
As they, that fold on fold
Up the dim valley are rolled,
Learn thou to be.
The Past—it was a feverish dream,
A drunken slumber full of tears.
The Future—O what wild wings gleam,
Wheeled in the van of desperate years!
Thou lovedst the evening: dawn
Glimmers; the night is gone:—
What dangers lure thee on,
What dreams more fierce?
But meanwhile, now the east is gray,
The hour is pale, the cocks yet dumb,
Be glad before the birth of day,
Take thy brief rest ere morning come:
Here in the beautiful woods
All night the sea-mist floods,—
Thy last of solitudes,
Thy yearlong home.
This post is based on various sources of research, and primarily that of John Cacioppo’s “The Lethality of Loneliness“
As always in love, Jean-Pierre
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