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Face to Face with Loneliness

Personal Journey

My first real bout with loneliness came after my sister, two years older than I, graduated from Grade 12 and moved away from home. We had grown up together and shared everything, even a bedroom, until my brother moved away when I was about nine or ten years old. Marlene is the kind of popular, cheery-hearted person anyone would love to have as a sister. Outgoing, smart and generous to a fault, I always looked up to her and wanted to go everywhere she went. We were playmates until we reached our teen years; then started to slowly go our separate ways. Psychologists have a term they call “separation anxiety,” a condition we find ourselves in when someone close to us is taken away, either from death, a move or broken relationship. I certainly felt that, although I didn’t know there was a name for it.

The disarming thing about loneliness is that it kind of creeps up on you. You might anticipate it but you can’t fully understand it until you meet it face-to-face, then it seems like a giant that won’t go away — larger than life, menacing and a pest. After my sister moved away, I remember that my parents made special efforts to include me more in their life. We took trips together, shopped together, talked more together, walked together, cooked meals together and generally, since I was their youngest daughter still at home, our family became re-invented from six to only three. There were a lot of adjustments to make. Along with my sister moving away, many of her friends who were also my close friends, moved away, got married and started to lead lives of their own outside of the school social circle. So being shy and unsure of what to do without my big sister to guide me along, I had to learn to make new friends with kids my own age and younger. Being a very stressful time, this is when I started becoming dependent on drugs and sometimes alcohol. Then when I moved away from home two years later, these dependencies escalated, as I’ve shared in another book I wrote called, When Love Is All There Is.

But there are many different situations that bring people face to face with loneliness. It could be when someone dies, or friends move away or get married. It could be even because of being the wrong color (black or white), race, religion, or from coming from the wrong scale on the social ladder. In my hometown, for example, there was a social scale. Even though it may not have been obvious, still there was an awareness of it. Social classes exist everywhere, cities and towns and even villages — from the very wealthy to the middle class to the lower income. There is also a definite hierarchy in every kind of employment imaginable. We see it in offices, businesses and hospitals where doctors come first, then the various levels of nurses, technicians and so on. Friendship circles can exclude you if you don’t fit exactly into their idea of social aptness. Everyone seems to be slotted somewhere and this can not only create an incredible feeling of inadequacy (depending on the situation), but also one of loneliness if a person feels ostracized because they are left out of certain social situations. If a person it shy, this only exacerbates the feeling of not fitting in since most people (who are outgoing) won’t bother to try and draw out a shy person and try to make friends with him or her.

I can’t say that the loneliness I felt at 15 was the same as the loneliness I felt once I left home and was on my own. Nor was it the same as I felt as a married woman. It seems to come in different stages of my life and I am always challenged by it, but rather than a huge giant that can’t be felled, I realize that it will be a time of personal growth and with every spurt of growth there are growing pains that will hopefully lead to a better me.

I have to admit that loneliness isn’t always something that just suddenly happens and creeps up on me unawares. It is something I’ve often chosen, because of the type of work I enjoy and because of the type of person I am. I enjoy the quiet beauty of solitude when my mind is calm and I am unafraid, when I am in an almost euphoric state of mind and then start creating — perhaps a story, poem, painting, sewing or jewelry creation. But this can’t really be defined as loneliness, although I am alone. There is nothing painful or distressful about it. Loneliness is when we feel acute pain and longing to be with other people and for some reason or another, we are unable to achieve that meaningful interaction we want and need with another human being.

When I was single, I couldn’t imagine that married people ever felt lonely. After all, they had each other all the time. But I found out that without meaningful communication and shared goals, and working at spending valuable time together that a loneliness worse than singlehood would be inevitable. Worse because the expectation of having a fulfilling relationship with your spouse is never quite reached, at least without a lot of concerted effort and shared planning. In my case, we moved from the city to a small resort town one hour north of the city. Being a writer, the quiet setting and beautiful scenery was perfect for writing and other creative pursuits like painting and photography. But every morning when I’d wake up and my husband would already be gone to work, I immediately felt a loss and a loneliness that I wouldn’t see him until much later in the day. I still go through bouts of loneliness but it does not bother me nearly as much as it used to.

What is Loneliness?

Everyone will experience loneliness at one time or another in their lifetime, whether married or single. And living in a rural setting where there are fewer people and less opportunity to socialize with doesn’t explain why statistics have shown that there are more lonely people in the cities than anywhere else. We don’t have to look far to discover that loneliness plagues our present-day society, and perhaps even more so in this highly technological world, where workers choose to work from home, with the only connection to people via the internet and telephone wires. Statistics also show that even though millions of people suffer with loneliness, it is still difficult to find feasible ways of dealing with it. In fact in researching the topic over many years, I found very few books that went beyond the surface of defining it and offering practical help for it. The reason some of the more obvious suggestions were not long-lasting is that psychology deals with it from the perspective of the soul rather than the spirit. While it is easy enough to define loneliness: without companionship, solitary, feeling of isolation, being lonely and alone, it is much more difficult to find the root causes without delving into it further.

I believe it is basically a spiritual problem that is manifest through the soul, and this is what fools people and makes finding the root cause and cure somewhat elusive. People often think it is an emotion; they “feel lonely,” so try to fix it through temporary means, mainly through avenues of the soul: with our mind and will, or willpower. The fixes are temporary, since we mistakenly believe that other people are the ultimate cure. People then start to become real estate — we want them and covet them, wanting people so much in our lives that they become a commodity. So we become self centered and our goal is — “I need people for what they can do for me,” rather than “What can I do for other people?” Some people call this co-dependency, another important topic that many books have been written on.

I find it exciting that if we look at loneliness from a spiritual perspective, rather than a natural condition of man, we can begin to find some real answers that often surround its complexities. From the very beginning of creation, when sin entered people’s hearts, there was an immediate separation from God. This led to fear, insecurity, and the greatest devastation of all, loneliness. If we believe that we were created for companionship and relationship with God Himself, then until we meet with Him on a meaningful level, no person in the world will suffice: loneliness will be inevitable. We’ll cover more of this in the next chapter.

Different Kinds of Loneliness

Not all loneliness is negative. Some people make some of the biggest contributions to humankind when they are alone and concentrating on the task at hand. We need to see the distinction between being alone and loneliness and there is a substantial difference.

Loneliness by Default

Sometimes we find ourselves alone by default, which means that something happens beyond our control and we come face-to-face with loneliness. This is what happened to me when my sister left home and moved away. Sometimes a loved one may pass away suddenly and we find ourselves alone. Sometimes, even though we have friends, everyone is busy at the same time and no one is available to even talk to. Sometimes a move to a new place will cause loneliness until we start getting involved in church, sports or other social outlets. Many people with illnesses and also elderly people suffer with loneliness when they are unable to get out to socialize. People in nursing homes and hospitals sometimes do not get any visitors other than the staff working there. Young people may feel ostracized by peers because they are different or are new to their school or area, and so will also feel loneliness. One of the most painful types of loneliness is the feeling that we just don’t fit in anywhere as hard as we may try. Everyone will experience some type of loneliness at some point in their lives since so many inevitable events may happen.

Loneliness by Profession

Could you ever believe that loneliness can be a passageway to many open doors and that sometimes there is no other way offered that will lead to the open door you have been praying for and hoping for? Writing books is a lonely business I can tell you. I am just now finally writing the many books I’ve had in mind to write for almost 30 years. I know why it’s taken me this long — every time I sat down to write, I’d write for only so long, then look out the window at the sun shining and I’d hear the birds singing, and want to be outside or go for a walk or do anything to get away from the strict discipline of researching and writing. My house has been cleaned many times over because I couldn’t sit behind the computer long enough to finish a story. I don’t like to be alone, yet my life’s calling requires me to be alone so that I can share my thoughts with people that will one day appreciate my books and be helped by them (at least I hope and pray).

Mothers or fathers of small children might be in a similar situation. They are alone all day raising their children and this is even a greater commitment since they are shaping, molding and teaching the next generation and preparing them to go out into the world one day where, hopefully, their lives will positively impact others.

People who do great things make the sacrifice of being alone in order to accomplish what needs to be done. Think of the greatest inventors, scientists, doctors, who sacrificed hours and years of their time to give us what we have today — computers, airplanes, electricity, penicillin and countless other necessary things we now take for granted. Every profession demands hours and years of study to become a professional. I spent eight years alone studying to obtain my Bachelors of Arts and Bachelor of Education degree. And I just scratched the surface. Loneliness, because of a profession or long-term goal, can be a very good and healthy thing because, although it may take some time, the end results will be good. A doctor, for example, will sacrifice at least seven difficult years learning the profession, and then spend a lifetime helping to cure people and even save some lives. We wouldn’t want him or her studying for any less since we are trusting them with our very lives. And pharmacy is the same — we want to know the pharmacist is dispensing the right drugs for our particular illness or ailment.

Loneliness by Choice

There is another type of loneliness that is unhealthy. Sometimes we choose to become reclusive and want to avoid people because we may have been hurt and feel angry, abandoned, abused and so on. But in this situation, the only person that really suffers is ourselves. Choosing to cut ourselves loose from people for whatever reason can be potentially harmful since statistics show that social isolation can lead to heart problems, high blood pressure, mental problems, drug and alcohol dependency, gambling and other addictions, and in some cases, even suicide.

Then there are people that look like they have all the friends in the world, but when they get home and no one is there, are faced with a worse loneliness than someone who is deemed to be rejected by society, or someone overcome by debilitating addictions. These people are often the life of the party, but secretly are afraid to develop honest, open and intimate relationships with other people.

Some people may choose loneliness because they just don’t want to take time to pursue and maintain friendships. Rather than turn to harmful addictions, they may become a workaholic, a term we often applaud in our work-oriented society. While it is a wonderful thing to enjoy our profession or job, when it begins to take over our life, it is most often our family that pays the price. Some children are raised by only one parent because the other parent is either away on business, working late at the office, or unavailable for quality time when he/she gets home because they’re too tired to deal with family matters. Sometimes marriages end when one or both partners are too involved in their careers. It is easy to lose track of friends as we launch into the various phases of life and try to balance hectic careers with marriage and family relationships, plus keep other special interest commitments going.

For whatever reason a person chooses loneliness, there is no substitution for our need for people and God by using things or even too much activity as a way to try and deal with it.

In the next chapter we’ll look at what really lies at the heart of loneliness, and find some remarkable truths that will begin to help us make some sense of loneliness.

Loneliness: The Pathway to Discovery