Loneliness

I have been struggling with loneliness lately. It’s probably been exacerbated by my bout with hypothyroidism because i just don’t have the energy to maintain connections – and i am guessing i also damaged a few because i reacted out of overwhelm. Still, i sense there’s more to this than a out-of-balance thyroid. As is my habit, i try to understand my situation in a broader context – i did that even before i knew that this can help us in regaining emotional balance and equanimity.

As Eric Klinenberg has pointed out: This is the dark side of being single. We’re not supposed to talk about it. When i mused about my longing for community before, somebody wondered if i was jetlagged. I think we’re stuck in the single-couple dichotomy. If i think that the only way for me to overcome my loneliness is to couple, then, as a singles activist, i am unlikely to admit my loneliness. And, that, ironically, contributes to loneliness because we’re stuck between admitting to it and being viewed as a traitor to the cause.

This is also the first social causes of loneliness that i have identified. As a single person, i am stuck with the normative strategy of addressing my loneliness: I should couple. The corollary is that if i don’t want to couple, i must like my life the way it is. There is no room for something else. The possibility that i enjoy being single and would prefer having deeper connections that do not involve coupling is off the table, so it seems. Similarly, if i can manage to live a happy life as a single, people might think that i can manage a move by myself, too. No help required.

Yet, this is why i am puzzling about this: It seems to me that i have been quite open about wanting to find a third way. Of longing for community and friendship. I also have some deep friendships that continue to evolve and are very nourishing. Strangely, they are all long-distance. Why have i been unable to create such connections here in San Francisco? A friend of mine attributes this to chronic busyness. I am sure that’s a part of it. And, yet, being “busy” is also a matter of priority. Why isn’t anybody making a connection with me a priority?

Asking this question is tricky because it’s really easy for me to fall into self-blame, self-judgment. There must be something wrong with me – and that’s why people don’t call me or email me or hang out with me. Or it’s my own fault because i don’t call or email or hang out. That is suffering, as the Buddhists call it: The mental layer that i add to the pain of loneliness. I am learning to look at the pain without adding this layer, as challenging as it is, because, again, i think there’s something going on here that’s important for us to look at if we want to live more life-affirming lives.

Another reason why this question is challenging to answer: I enjoy my solitude, most of the time. Maybe it’s part of being a writer that i thrive on observing the world around it without being fully a part of it. And, yet, solitude becomes loneliness when it’s no longer out of choice – when i am alone by default because i didn’t make the effort to set something up or i don’t have the energy to go to a dance event.

Maybe the answer lies in that corollary i mentioned: Because i choose to be single, i must be just fine, thank you very much. Or maybe it’s something more, uhm, sinister? I have a sense that i am different than many of the people in the groups i’ve gotten involved in. I have spent 13 years in corporate America. I wear different clothes. I have raised a child. I don’t have a degree in psychology or a degree from an alternative place of learning. I don’t believe in homeopathy. Although again this is a line of thinking that can easily tip into self-blame, i wonder if there is something here that makes it less likely that people want to connect with me.

I don’t know. It remains a puzzle to me. What i do know is that i am experiencing cultural trauma: I live in a country that overvalues individualism and the idea of pulling oneself up by our bootstraps. And it’s deeply couplemanic. Isolation is a symptom of this society’s cultural norms.

I am noticing a strange reluctance to post this. Maybe i am just suffering the depression-like symptoms of hypothyroidism. Maybe i am ungrateful. Maybe this’ll offend people. Maybe i should just open myself up more. Maybe i should work harder to grow my sense of self-worth. And that is another topic i’ve been thinking about a lot: How my self-worth might not be as independent of others as some people might want us to believe. I have definitely experienced the ease of holding onto my sense of self-worth when i am with others who mirror my worth. And how it leeks out when i don’t have that social mirroring. That’s something for another post, though…

So, i want to publish this in the hopes that you can see beyond my personal pain. That pain is simply symptomatic of the larger social issue: We don’t have time to build and maintain relationships that can support and nourish us. Why we don’t have that time is what i find so interesting… And that’s what i’ve been puzzling over…






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Comments

Loneliness — 7 Comments

  1. Hi Rachel,

    Wow, very interesting post. I have thought about this periodically too — if I feel lonely, should I admit it to anyone? Will that mean that I’m not happy, and if I’m not happy because I’m lonely, does that mean that I’m not happy because I’m single? It’s a really f*’d up cycle of logic.

    I think you’re just human; everyone has a wide range of emotions, and loneliness is one of them. We can be lonely when surrounded by friends or family; many people seem to be lonely even when they are coupled. I think that the “chronic busyness” and individualism of American culture can certainly contribute to that feeling. I know that before I moved to Beirut, I was surrounded by lots of coupled friends in Louisville who sometimes seemed to forget that I existed, seemingly because they had significant others to keep them company. That was a lonely experience.

    But I also found ways to start changing my ways of connecting with people — even when I would resent having to do so or didn’t have the energy, I would put myself out there more by calling and emailing, set dates for meeting up with friends. I tried to be more explicit about how much I valued the friendship of someone, and when I articulated these feelings, it was often reciprocated and resulted in a deeper relationship. Of course I didn’t do this with everyone — only those who I felt really cared about me.

    At any rate, just wanted to say that I understand and also have had mixed feelings about admitting loneliness. But it’s real, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re single or coupled to feel it.

    Good luck –

    Lisa (at Onely)

    • Thanks, Lisa! Yes, there is some very strange logic going on when we start wondering about being lonely because we’re single! It’s exasperated by couplemania and our hyper-busyness that lets friendships slide down the importance pole.

  2. Here’s an opinion piece in the NYT that is capturing what i tried to write about in this post. A sense of loneliness is a consequence of people’s busyness.

    Some quotes (italics – my emphasis):

    If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.”
    [...]
    The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.
    [...]
    Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
    [...]
    The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.
    [...]
    I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love.
    [...]
    Life is too short to be busy.

  3. Rachel

    I think you’re right when you say that you’re feeling depressed …… I can see what you’re thinking and feeling because I’m almost always feeling the way that you do. I’m suffering horrendous fatigue etc too but in a different situation though as I literally only see friends about 5 times a year for various reasons, and don’t even speak to them on the phone much at all.

    I think that you’ve honestly got to get your health back to normal and then you’ll ssee that you’ll be thinking a lot more clearly. Shouldn’t your hypothyrooid symptoms be better by now? It sseems a long time ago that you told us about them …… it only takes about 6 weeks to get the effect of a change in medication dosage etc.

    I can’t help with suggestions as I don’t know anything about your current situation re contact with friends etc ….. if you feel like it do another blog post about things like how often you have contact with friends and doing what etc, and then ideally what you’d like ……

    In the meantime, as I’m posting this at 11.20pm I have the TV on in the background for visual company (so that the room won’t be so stark and empty without it) or else I’ve got it on with the volume too (I alternative depending on whether I want to concentrate). I’m going online to read lots and lots of emails from the different communities, read blog posts and Faceebook etc in order to feel like I’m part of communities and to feel like I’m part of some people’s lives, I’ve got a room that is totally full of wallhangings and decorations (there’s nothing like a room with few pictures to make me feel lonely) and lots of things around me to pick up and do when I feel like it.

    But that’s just me ……..

    Hope your thyroid gets fixed ASAP!!!

    • I’ve only been on the new medication since July 13… Prior to that, i was still on Levoroid, which was likely subpotent and created this havoc in the first place.

      Also, even though i drew from my on experience in this post, i was trying to make a general point: The cultural focus on individualism and do-it-yourself attitude is contributing to loneliness and isolation. That cannot be fixed by adjusting my medication dosage. It’s a wider issue – as, btw, many others have written about.

      It frustrates me that my general point got lost in my own story – and i want to learn to balance this in a way that makes this less likely because, as i pointed out at the end of my post, i am much more interested in this as a social issue than as a personal problem (because i am taking actions to resolve that).

  4. Hi there Rachel!

    Again, your post is so reflective of the tagline of your blog, especially the notion of provocations. As I look at how I relate to the ideas you share, two questions come to mind: What is loneliness? If we long for, doesn’t that by definition set us up to be in a state of longing?

    In the last few of my 55 years on the planet, I’ve come to a place in my life that I describe as, “Free to be (insert whatever state) …” and I’ve been doing my own musings about, “Free to be single” as a feature on my website. A few things happened when I put it in these terms.

    Firstly, i experienced acceptance … I am single as a fact (not as a comparison to other statuses). Before, I railed against the fact, resisting it as where I was and thinking of it as a way station, a journey to being coupled. So I was never in the moment, right where I was which is a sure-fire recipe for suffering. And trust me I suffered. With every Friday night, I would shed tears of sadness, inadequacy and loneliness because I was coupled and had no plans with a significant other to fill my weekends.

    Secondly, embracing this fact allowed me to go within (the home of being) rather than outside for my nurturing (the home of appearance) and be present to who I am and also choose what to bring to this space. In the past I brought, self-doubt, something’s wrong or missing, failure. Now I bring gratitude, love and presence. What the has provided is an access to seeing how interpendent I am and i now create experiences that nurture me (in my website I refer to this as feeding inspiration & fueling passion). I have many interests including being with my friends, sports, movies, writing, volunteering and so I began to create experiences around my interests which continually feeds my inspiration & fuels my passion.

    Thirdly, I realized my single status was a choice, not something that happened to me or the result of my old beliefs of “not being lovable.” With this view, i now see that it is more important to be open to and a yes to life than to guard or protect my status. When I first started to enjoy my single hood, I used to scan my surroundings for justifications for singleness … friends in relationships looked so unhappy … as a single, I am already happy; not needing to account for my whereabouts … as a single, I come and go as I please; viewing any status as a permanent state is contrary to the law of the universe where change is the a certainty and that offered me the greatest access to being free to be single. I recognized that being open to life could include being in a partnership or other form of relationship. The distinction for me now is I am not in a desperate search to fill the void of ‘loneliness, unhappiness, unlovability, sadness’ with another. I am already fulfilled, happy, lovable and present to my various emotional vacillations and being any of these things is a choice I make moment to moment. To exclude the option of relating is to put a limit on my life.

    This tri-fecta of revelations, I began to see that feeling lonely was something I had total charge of and what came through for me was that nurturing myself, nurtures my life, nurtures my relatings, nurtures my experiences. With this I engage in life with or without others with a sense of joy and delight from the uncertainty of how things will go. I have experiences of doubt which i acknowledge and choose from the many practices I have created for myself (and have co-authored a book about) including inquiry – what’s present right now? is a question I commonly ask; journaling; creating a vision letter which i read regularly to keep me present to life’s intentions; inviting others without agenda (treating invitation as it was intended, an option for another to say yes or no – i used to be so upset when I invited and heard no. I’m no longer stopped by someone’s no); developing a website which transmits Daily Treats of inspiration and tips/ideas that feed inspiration & fuel passion; volunteerism; placing equal importance of being on my own as an activity as I do on have a full roster of events & invitations and many more.

    Thanks Rachel for allowing me to write these thoughts down … your question was a catalyst for me to see where I am in my life and appreciate where i have been and truly it is a wonder-full place!

    The journey continues …

    With gratitude,
    Donna Marie

    • I just realized that i didn’t thank you for your comment, Donna Marie! I am glad that my post was a catalyst for some self-exploration that affirmed your choice to be single! As i mentioned in the post, i personally am moving toward trying to create something in my life that isn’t following any particular label…

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