Are you lonely?
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
I’ve been pondering on loneliness recently. Earlier this week I posted a quote on Twitter by a lady called Annie Kirby, words she’d written three years ago as part of a thread on her experience of childlessness. This was the quote:
Being childless-not-by-choice has been the loneliest experience of my life. The loneliness is almost as bad as the childlessness. Annie Kirby
Fully empathising with her words I posted it as part of a thread on all our social media feeds with this text:
“Loneliness is a by-product of many losses and we've heard it spoken about many times on the podcast. In a world where we are more connected than ever, we are more lonely than ever. One of the main goals of the podcast was to reach people who are grieving or lonely and show them they are not alone, because inevitably people who are lonely are lonely for a reason, and so often that reason can be connected to a loss or grief. If you're feeling lonely, it's hard, but reach out to someone who cares for you and tell them. And if someone reaches out to you, find a way to show them they're appreciated. And if you can't think of anyone - ping me a message.”
Annie actually replied to my tweet saying that three years later she still feels it just as deeply. Her original tweet was a long thread that spoke about all the ways she’s found it hard to be a childless woman including areas like wanting to enjoy baby showers without feeling alone, wanting to hold babies without waves of grief, being told she’d never understand real tiredness or true love, watching others go on maternity leave more than once while feeling like she’s seen as never changing at work, the impression others have of a childless life being free time, lie ins and weekends away, the child-shaped holes in her life, the friendship groups that have excluded her, the achievements that have been diminished compared to mothering, and the loneliness of a new parent or a those struggling with toddlers being seen in society more than hers.
Loneliness comes in many forms and the more I thought about it, the more I saw its connection with loss. Loss of a relationship, a person, a dream, an ability, a sense, a safety net, a support system, they’re all things that could lead to a sense of loneliness.
I want to pause for a moment to distinguish between ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’ though; you can be alone and not lonely, and you can not be alone and be lonely. Alone is when no one else is present around you, a physical state of being by yourself. Lonely is an emotional state of feeling disconnected from those around you.
Solitude is pleasant. Loneliness is not. Anna Neagle
There are good things about being alone and some of us even seek it out at times, but I think generally, if you do seek it out or love it, it probably means you are stepping away from situations in which you do not feel lonely - choosing to enjoy the solitude. Whereas I would suggest the lonely do not seek to be alone, it is a situation they find themselves in against their preference or more than they’d like.
Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty. Mother Teresa
And of course, it is possible to be surrounded by people, but still feel lonely. In the film ‘World’s Greatest Dad’, Robin Williams’ character, Lance, says this:
I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone. Lance, World’s Greatest Dad film
As a side note, there are also people who struggle to be alone for other reasons and that’s a different problem completely. And I would say it’s a problem. If you can’t sit, with only your own company (and nothing to distract you) for any period of time, then in my mind there’s a sadness to that which could contend with the plight of loneliness.
Humans were made for connection, we don’t do well without it, and ultimately - love. To be loved, to give love. Whether we place that love with other humans, nature, objects or hobbies, we’re all looking to give and receive love, whatever we might tell other people.
I’ll be honest with you, during the Covid lockdowns in the UK, a friend convinced me to watch a programme I’d avoided so far in England - Love Island. I, like the rest of you that don’t watch it, was very sceptical of this addictive program that people seemed gripped by. From the outside all I could see were pretty people with toned bodies in skimpy beachwear, locked in a house for 6-8 weeks, getting up to all kinds of things they wouldn’t want their grandma seeing, but in front of the whole nation, for a bit of fame. All under the guise of ‘finding love’. However, the people that had recommended it weren’t the shallow, pervy types, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I do like to have some measure of understanding of things before I dismiss them completely (except some of the more heinous criminal activities of course). I have to confess I was surprised. I mean, yes, there is a lot about the programme I wouldn’t recommend to people, but as someone fascinated by human behaviour, interaction and psychology, I found it very interesting. For sure, these people come from a very different world to what I know and grew up in, but the basis of their conversations, their tears, their anger, and their interactions, seemed to be coming from a place we all know well - a desire to be liked, accepted, to connect and ultimately find love. Watching people who admit they have never told anyone they love them or heard those words said to them in a relationship, and the journey they go on to possibly reach that point and how it made them feel, reminded me of those early days when we are all looking around us to find love. That heady, passionate, all-consuming love that would take up our thoughts, our time and our attention. And if you’ve experienced that, even briefly, you’ll know it’s stressful, crazy, embarrassing and amazing. If you haven’t, don’t give up on it, if it’s something you want to find, it’s definitely not something that is restricted by age or stage. Beyond those early years most of us start to eventually recognise that, fun as it is, love is so much more than that, it’s about commitment and dedication, it’s more than just a feeling, it’s a choice. The choice to ‘love’ someone goes further than ‘liking’ someone because you can even love someone you don’t like (Google ‘loving your enemies’ for more on that). And so, once again, like so many things in life, we’re back at everything being a choice. It’s a choice to love, it’s a choice to find love, it’s a choice to give love, it’s a choice to look around you and notice the love you already have in your life - maybe through a good friend, a parent, a boss that looks out for you, colleagues that have your back, a Pastor that asks about you, a neighbour that checks on you.
And of course, love and loneliness are connected. The absence of any kind of love, be it platonic, relational, parental or romantic, or a lack of connection with those around, will induce loneliness.
Some might think it's your family's job to make sure you're not lonely, but I don't believe that's the case. The family unit is more fractured than ever for most people now, and the cause of as much pain and heartache as it is love. And ever was it thus.
An interesting diversion, about a saying that many a parent has attempted to use to repair these fractures in family, is…
Blood is thicker than water.
Just in case you've faced this argument, did you know that this phrase potentially originated from references in literature that back as far back as the 1100’s, where the original wording was actually said to be:
The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.
Now there’s a lot of debate and different theories over this as the years have gone by, and it’s been changed and credited to different sources, but one of the theories is that it refers to blood covenants which were made, going way back in history (B.C.) between two parties. These covenants involved cutting an animal in half, splitting the two halves apart and then the two parties making the covenant or agreement would walk through the blood in the middle, before sometimes cutting their hands and shaking to mix their blood too. Now I know you probably do this most weekends, but back then it was a very important sign that nothing could break the pact or agreement they had just made, in the same way you can’t unmix the blood they'd exchanged or put the animal back together. These types of covenants date back to Biblical times. So this was the blood part of the phrase, and the water part was the water you were born in, like when the woman’s water breaks before the birth. Some other cultures use the word ‘milk’ instead, meaning the milk where a child is breastfed. The saying was confirming that blood covenants and agreements were stronger than family ties. So the phrase originally meant the exact opposite of how we use it now. And covenants were never to be broken, even for family members who were born of the same water.
We don’t see a lot of covenant making now, probably because it seems like a messy business, but the closest we have are signed contracts, (far more sterile) including things like marriages and wills and purchases.
All this to say, we all have a responsibility to help people feel less alone, and sometimes that involves bringing people into our family units, and sometimes it involves us stepping out of them. There’s a reason times like Thanksgiving and Christmas make people feel so alone, and it’s largely because people retreat into their families to celebrate. When was the last time you invited someone to join you to celebrate one of those? Or remembered a time someone might be lonely and struggling and made a conscious effort to reach out to them? Because I know for a fact, without a shadow of a doubt, that someone is reading/listening to this now and you feel lonely.
And if that’s you, I just want you to know that although it feels super hard, or maybe even a bit obvious, I’ve found there is power in owning it. You might never have said the words out loud to anyone or even to yourself before, but believe me, it does help to name your feelings. Maybe you need to say it out loud now - 'I'm so lonely'.
Sometimes that can start the journey to realising you want to resolve it, and the really gut-wrenching thing is - often it takes our own efforts to change it. Which seems super unfair.
If you’re not feeling lonely right now, then I want you to remember that someone else, who might be really near to you, or really far, is feeling that way even if they’ve never said it out loud or even alluded to it with you. I’d encourage you to find them, not by asking everyone ‘are you lonely?’ but by just being inclusive of those around you. And I don’t necessarily mean inviting to them to your big family Christmas, that can actually make them feel more alone than ever, I mean by showing them you care. It might only be a small act on your behalf but you could actually make their day, year or life by one kind gesture. One kind gesture has saved many a person's life. You might be thinking, ‘well, what do they want if it’s not an invite to Christmas dinner?’ Well, how about in the middle of your big family Christmas celebrations you popped out for a few minutes to drop some of their favourite Christmas food on their doorstep? Or what about messaging them a few times throughout the day rather than dropping off the grid for 48 hours and popping up afterwards to send the message: ‘How was your Christmas?’ It’s often the thought that they might be on your mind, even though you’re having a lovely time, that means the most to people. Maybe it's remembering an important date for them, a birthday, a wedding anniversary, a death anniversary, these things say 'you matter to me'. I know a lot of childless women who make a lot of effort to remember dates for children and friends and family around them, but get very little back in the way of just a birthday card or an anniversary text. That's so sad. It's especially touching if you see the need without them even telling you or pointing it out. When you notice someone like that they’re the moments movies are made of.
One of my favourites scenes in the TV series Sex and the City is when Miranda is alone for New Year’s Eve after her son left to go and be with his dad who she’s separated from at the time. She phones her friend Carrie, in the hour before midnight, who is alone also and tucked up asleep in bed when she rings. Carrie answers the phone and Miranda says: “So I thought the perk of a family was that you don’t have to spend New Year’s Eve alone with Chinese food.” She finds out that Carrie was asleep and apologises for waking her. Carrie asks if she’s okay and Miranda says;
“I’m fine. I got all choked up watching stupid New Year’s eve stuff alone on TV.”
Carrie offers to come over but Miranda points out she’ll never get a cab on New Year’s Eve and tells her;
‘I just wanted to talk a little. Go back to sleep, I’ll see you next year. Goodnight.”
Carrie says okay and goodnight and hangs up, she lies down and turns off the light for a few seconds. Then this beautiful version of Auld Lang Syne starts to play in the scene and Carrie puts the light on, throws back her duvet, grabs a coat and hat to put on over her pjs, and hurries out into the snowy streets of New York. The scene then flicks between others in their friend group celebrating New Year's Eve in different ways; a young family at home together, a couple alone at home, people at parties, one of their ex’s alone eating at a bar, and then it flicks back to Carrie hopping through the streets in the snow, across New York and Brooklyn, through people celebrating on the streets. Then as we see Miranda alone and sad, we also see Carrie running up her front steps, and she knocks, and Miranda opens the door to her just as the New Year's Eve countdown starts on the TV behind them. As Carrie grabs Miranda into a hug in the doorway, and everyone is yelling ‘Happy New Year’, Carrie says to Miranda;
‘You’re not alone.’
It gives me goosebumps and tears every time I watch it. What a picture of actions speaking louder than words.
You can watch it on this link but discretion is advised because there is some bad language and a bit of partial nudity thrown in with scenes elsewhere: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bACWtsuMd54
And I want to tell you, whoever you are today that needs to hear this, wherever you are, I might not be able to reach out and give you those sorts of actions, but I do want you to know you’re not alone. There are many humans on this planet that would love to help you feel less alone, and if you want help with that, feel free to get in touch.
And it’s not just humans that can help with loneliness - there are many things in life that have helped people feel more connected - art, music, hobbies, animals, nature, writing, singing, sport, blogging, so many things. Even TV, I have TV characters that are special to me because they walked me through some tough times.
Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness. Maya Angelou
I’m learning that loneliness has as many facets to it as loss. There can be a beauty to it, there are amazing things that are born out of it, it can be a gift, it can be a curse, none of us want to go through it, but we can be better people because of it, and ultimately it’s how we face it, process it, acknowledge it and deal with it that determines what it does in us and through us.
Find company within yourself and you’ll never spend a day alone. Find love within yourself and you’ll never have a lonely day. Connor Chalfant