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Posts Tagged ‘loneliness’

“Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

I have been re-reading bits of Letters to a Young Poet and then I found this cool site called zenpencils.com that illustrates quotations and poems in a comic-like style, and they recently did this Rilke quotation, and it seemed timely. So here we are. (The latest one they did is a Lang Leav one, which I also highly recommend, especially because I love Lang Leav’s poetry.)

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It’s nice to think about living into an answer, but I think we are always living our questions. And the answers simply lead to more questions. Sometimes life seems to me to be one giant experiment. You can follow blueprints left by other people, some of which are more detailed than others. Or you can strike off on your own and see what happens. But it’s all about questions, starting with the simple “What will happen next?”

I ran into a friend at a party some time ago, and he said he reads the blog from time to time, and he told me how idyllic it seemed, that I got to sit around and ponder the big questions. And I do. That’s exactly what I do. I spend a lot of time sitting around and thinking. So here’s another question for you: Why? Why do I sit around and ponder the big questions? And why do I get to do this? And does it have any outward effect whatsoever?

I’m reading a book about playwriting, and I have learned that the “action” of the play is what the characters want. This idea will be familiar to anyone who has studied any kind of storytelling for more than a few months. (Weeks? I don’t remember, I just remember it is foundational.) So then some of the other questions we live are “What do we want?” and “Are we going to get it?” and “Are we going to keep it?” and “Is it going to change?”

I spent several hours on the phone this past weekend with a friend who is going through a break-up after spending more than twenty years not being single. “Friends aren’t the same,” this person told me. “I feel so alone.” And I felt a jolt of surprise that this was a revelation, even though after twenty years, of course it was. Yes, being single means being alone in a different way. How do we become okay with this? How did I come to this almost benign acceptance of yes, that is really how it is? And then another question: who am I when I’m alone? Who am I when I’m not fulfilling a role that is at least partially defined by my relationship to someone else?

These are questions that have been occupying my spare moments lately. Who am I when I strip everything away? When I put aside relationships to friends, family, a lover? When I subtract job and career and calling? When I suspend my hobbies, my interests? When I forget about my past? When I am no longer concerned with status, power, wealth, influence, and ego? Who am I then?

Who am I then? I am living that question. Maybe nothing, maybe everything. I am present. I am living into answers that will give me more questions, and my curiosity will be my fuel.

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I remember the first holiday when I had nowhere to go.

I was twenty-two years old. I had just graduated from college, and in a few weeks I was moving to London. It was Christmastime. It would have been the last Christmas in my childhood home, as the plan was to sell the house sometime the next year. Would have been, because my dad and his girlfriend decided to go on a romantic getaway for Christmas instead. I made plans to spend Christmas with my boyfriend and his family. But then we broke up like a week beforehand.

And I had nowhere to go.

*

I read an essay in the New York Times last week that hit me hard in the gut. Life: An Unspooling, it was called. The writer, Rachel Louise Snyder, was writing about loneliness:

“I imagine myself alone in ways other people are not…. People who know where they’ll go on holidays and with whom and for how long. People with plans. With extended family they complain about, but then spend the most important days of the year with.”

I imagine myself alone in ways other people are not. There’s the rub, isn’t it? We have these ideas in our minds, maybe even expectations, about how things are, about how things should be, about the way other people live their lives. We feel the rawness of the intersection of how we imagine other people live and how our own lives fall short of this ideal. And all of these mental gymnastics make the loneliness ache that much more acutely.

And then there’s that feeling of free fall. Because there are most important days of the year, however arbitrary they may be, and to have nowhere to go for them–to lack that comfortable sense of belonging–it is hard. And knowing there are many people who also lack that certainty about those important days doesn’t lessen the loneliness of it.

Those of us who know this reality have to create anchors in other ways. And there is no instruction manual on how to accomplish this.

*

I read this essay in the Times, and then I got in my car and drove to the movies to see Mr. Holmes with one of my close friends.

Oh, Mr. Holmes. The movie is a meditation on loneliness. Every character is lonely in his or her own way, alienated in his or her own way, and the loneliness we see is profound. Alienation between father and son, between mother and child, between two best friends, between husband and wife, between oneself and one’s aging and failing body. People who fail to understand one another, who let each other down in terrible ways. Who feel like they do not belong.

Oh, this movie. I love it, I hate it, thinking about it now makes me want to cry, the ending is sublime. I want to find my own field somewhere and a bunch of big white rocks (even as I was watching, I thought to myself, where in the world does one obtain rocks like those).  I want to remember the people who are not here anymore. The people whose absence still speaks. The people who, in their own ways, have taught me about loneliness, all unknowing.

*

This last Christmas I did my best to let go. It was actually a very good Christmas. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with two of my favorite people, and I looked through the year’s photobook for the first time, and I spent time with Nala, and I ate well, and I Skyped with my sister.

Tree Day, however, I spent alone.

Tree Day, for me, is perhaps of an equivalent importance to Christmas Day itself. It is the first Saturday of December. It is the day I go pick out a tree and bring it home and string up the lights and decorate it. It tends to smoosh out into two days and sometimes even more.

For last Tree Day, I thought about asking around and trying to find someone who would go with me, someone who would help me carry the tree in from the car, someone who would decorate with me and perhaps even listen to the occasional memory ignited by one of the many old ornaments in my collection. I thought about it, and it was an exhausting thought, and so I just went by myself and hoped for the best, and then a neighbor I didn’t know helped me carry the tree into the apartment, and everything worked out.

I was happy because my anchor held. I could do it on my own. I could let go, and I wasn’t deeply unhappy about it. I was just a tiny bit unhappy. And I was still able to create the beauty I wished to see.

It looks like fairies live here.

It looks like fairies live here.

But I was also sad. Because I knew–because I know–that I will always want that. I will always want people I belong to and who belong to me. I will always want one or more people who will of course spend Tree Day with me because it is one of my Most Important Days. I will always want a place to be.

It’s okay. It’s okay that I will always want this and I won’t always get it. But it is also sad.

*

I want you to know the only reason I can publish this piece is that I’m not feeling particularly lonely right now.

Also, the holidays are still a safe distance away. I won’t start to feel a hollow pit of dread until at least October.

I hope you won’t feel sorry for me. I hope, instead, that you will experience some kind of resonance, reading this. That you will think of your own way of being lonely, whatever that looks like, and that perhaps its edge will be slightly dulled hearing about one of my ways. That you will gain a greater appreciation for the place you have to be, or that you will find courage in not having that place, in knowing that the not having is workable and that it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.

That perhaps we can continue to understand each other better, you and I.

*

I spend a lot of time feeling deep gratitude towards the people who give me less obvious places to go.

I don’t know if these people know what they’re giving me. Every invitation, whether accepted or not, I gather them up and they become part of that all-important anchor. They help me remember my place in the world.

I did not have to spend Mother’s Day alone. I did not have to spend Christmas alone. I did not have to spend Thanksgiving alone. There is no price that can be put on things like this.

That Christmas, back when I was twenty-two, it had a happy ending. One of my best friends from college invited me into her home. Her entire family welcomed me and included me in all the festivities. To this day, I think about the generosity and warmth they showed me, and I tear up, and it changes how I see the world.

They didn’t have to offer me a place to go. But they did.

It meant everything to me. It still does.

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Him: “Yeah, I went to the movies this past weekend, it was my fun thing for the month.”

Me: “You only do one fun thing per month?”

Him: “Well, it’s probably more like every other week, but yeah.”

Me: “Oh. But don’t you want to spend time with your friends?”

Him: “I’m kind of a Lone Wolf.”

Me: “Uh huh….”

Him: “I don’t have time to have a social life like you do.”

Me: “Hmm. I will ignore your condescending tone and actually think about this.”

So yes, I am lucky to have the time and energy to maintain the social life I do. And having had to jumpstart it twice in the last three years (yippee!), I’ve collected a lot of experience and information about making friends, and having friends, and what friendship can mean, and what can go wrong in a friendship, and what I want. And I have a bunch of theories about friendship and social dynamics that I occasionally trot out. (I want to say I bring them out at dinner parties, but I am never actually invited to dinner parties.)

Anyway, here are two myths about friendship that I’ve been thinking about recently:

Myth #1: Everyone has a lot of friends and a swinging social life.

I don’t know why I ever believed this one, but maybe it’s a weird remnant from high school or something? Anyway, as is becoming the norm for me, I’ve been meeting a lot of people, and as I talk to all these people, I’ve recognized a thread that keeps returning.

Not everyone has a lot of friends. And a lot of people are kind of sort of lonely. A lot of these people are really busy in their professional lives, and, like the guy in the conversation above, they don’t feel they have the time to prioritize friendship. Some of them don’t really know how to be a friend. Some of them don’t really understand how one goes about making new friends. Some of them feel stuck.

Of course, the amount of ideal social activity varies from person to person. And there are plenty of people who are content with their social lives. But this isn’t all people.

If you are unhappy with your social life or if your life is kind of unbalanced right now, you are not alone.

Myth #2: Having friendships and an active social life just kind of happens.

I don’t know why I ever believed this one either. Because oh my gosh, maintaining a busy social life is A LOT OF WORK.

I know, tiniest violin, right? I’m not saying this is something warranting complaint, but it is simply fact that it takes a fair amount of effort. Maintaining social ties takes work. Making new friends takes work. Keeping in touch takes work. People say all the time how bad they are at keeping in touch, and the reason that’s something it’s even possible to be bad at is because it requires thought and action and time.

And of course, when you’re kickstarting your social life, it takes even more work. Or, um, when you’re running your social life close to capacity. Which, yes, is what I’m doing right now, and so I’ve been feeling like I’m running behind, and like I always have messages I need to answer, and occasionally I forget them because my brain cannot hold all the information it needs to hold, and I can almost always make time, but that works exactly the way it sounds, with a whole bunch of effort put into somehow making that time materialize. And then once in a while I have no plans and I don’t have to schedule or coordinate or drive for two hours or find parking or figure out an activity or restaurant suggestion or communicate clearly and instead I can sit on my couch with Nala on my feet and eat ice cream and watch Star Trek and that is the best thing ever.

Have I mentioned I’m just the tiniest bit tired?

It’s completely worth it, or I wouldn’t be doing it. The rewards are incalculable. But I have also realized that five years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. It would have been actually impossible for me. Because the only way I can keep this up is by communicating as clearly as possible and asking for what I need and sometimes saying no and not moving heaven and earth when the logistics are really complicated but instead just accepting this isn’t the right time. The only way it works is if I can trust my friends to take care of themselves the way I’m doing my best to take care of myself. The only way I can do everything I want to do and spend time with everyone I want to spend time with is by accepting that in the process, I’m not going to be perfect.

I couldn’t have done those things five years ago. And as a result, I might have been a bit of a Lone Wolf. I didn’t really like being a Lone Wolf. It was lonely, and also I didn’t have as many choices, and also when someone behaved poorly, there was more incentive to ignore that instead of taking care of myself.

But no longer. When the particular Lone Wolf at the beginning of this post spent the conversation putting me down and proceeded to make a “joke” telling me I needed more exercise (implying what? that I’m fat? really?), I was completely happy to run, not walk, the other direction.

I’ve got better places to be.

San Francisco at dusk.

San Francisco at dusk.

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A friend recently shared an article entitled “The Curse of the Connector.” Its tagline? “It’s easy to never be alone and yet very lonely.” The writer describes a glamorous Gatsby whirlwind of life in his social circle, in which everyone is supposed to always be doing something exciting and “crushing it.” But, he says, “The world desperately needs more “connections” to become true friendships.”

I live in the Silicon Valley, and I’ve experienced the culture the author is talking about. The “crush it” culture exhausts me because, on the surface at least, it seems to focus heavily on appearances. In addition, there is the “always busy” mentality. Meanwhile, we like to speculate on whether social media is making us more lonely. All of these ideas are interconnected, as they relate to the type and depth of connections with which we surround ourselves.

I’m going to rush right by the fact that the first mention about true friends in this article is that they make excellent personal brand consultants. (Really?!? That’s the first thing that comes to mind about friendship? Really?!?) At its heart, this article is about the realization that our lives are better when we have close friends as well as a large number of acquaintances, that friendship isn’t a numbers game or a mere ego boost.

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

Yes, friendship takes time. Yes, it takes work. Yes, sometimes it can be quite difficult to find kindred spirits with whom to be close. Since last year was the Year of Friendship for me, I spent a lot of time thinking about these things, and now I have a few theories about friendship:

The Once a Week Theory: The more often you see somebody, the more likely you are to become close friends. Once a week or more is optimal. Once every other week is adequate. Less than once a month and the friendship probably doesn’t have the time to form right now. (For long distance friendship making, texts, emails, and Skypes can be substituted for in-person time. For established friendships, you can sometimes get by on less, but eventually you won’t be as close.)

It is no coincidence that many of my close friends get together every week for game night. I think of other close friends I’ve made, and there is generally either a concerted effort to see each other regularly, or a steady stream of texts or emails.

The One-on-One Theory: Sure, I can have good times with people at parties or group outings. But for me, a friendship becomes closer when I spend time one-on-one or in small groups (probably no more than four or five). The more one-on-one time I spend with somebody, the more likely we are to become close friends.

The Diminishing Returns Theory: Not everyone is going to be a perfect friend match. Maybe she’s too busy, maybe he’s going through a rough patch, maybe the two of us just didn’t click (or it was a one-sided click). Maybe there’s something in the friendship dynamic that isn’t working too well. It doesn’t mean you aren’t both great people, it just means you’re not going to become close. Happily, there are many more fabulous people out there who might become good friends. It works better to invest time with the people who will invest their time in you and can be part of a balanced and positive friendship. (Yes, friendship can be surprisingly like dating.)

Taylor’s Party Corollary: The closer the friend, the earlier you plan to arrive at their parties. It’s nice when a close friend arrives close to the start time. They can help set up, chat comfortably, hang out before the party picks up speed, or occupy early-arriving acquaintances and help the conversation flow. (Note: I am not good at this. I almost always arrive late to parties.)

How about you? Have any theories of your own about friendship?

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One of the traits I mentioned last week that is connected with resilience is perspective, and part of perspective is the ability to find or create meaning. In a conversation about resilience, that meaning is most often crafted around circumstances of difficulty, but really humans are looking everywhere for meaning all the time.

Photo by Patrick Hoesly

James Altucher gives a great example of this in his latest Q&A post, in which someone asks him whether their sadness will ever go away. James’s answer, especially the fourth point of it, is a textbook example of emotional resilience by creating meaning: “When I feel sad… the universe will grieve but then rejoice because it’s learning so much. Then I can rejoice because every pain, every sadness, every moment, is ME, the universe manifest, learning something new.” He believes that every moment of his life is a learning experience for the universe, and therefore his life is infused with meaning. And this helps him deal with feelings of sadness.

A few days after I read this Q&A, I read Karawynn Long’s latest post, “How American culture is causing widespread misery.” She talks about the correlation between a shift in American culture and increasing rates of depression, and offers some suggestions as to what we individually can do about this. It’s really fascinating, especially this part: “As our culture shifted to exalt the benefits of personal choice and individual success, Seligman explains, we were also losing confidence in the larger constructs of society. Previously, he says, Americans lived in “a context of meaning and hope.” When we encountered failure, we could take reassurance from something larger than ourselves: “a belief in the nation, in God, in one’s family, or in a purpose that transcends our lives.” But as Carter noted, in the middle of the twentieth century that reassurance began to disintegrate.”

So with an increasing distrust in government, along with declines in active religious faith and more closely knit (and often geographically close) families, Americans suffered from more depression. In other words, with loss of meaning came decreased emotional resilience.

Of course, we can, and do, find meaning elsewhere, whether or not we believe in God or our families or the government. Personally, I have found a great deal of meaning in teaching, particularly children and teens, and while I’m not teaching at present, I suspect I’ll do it again at some point in the future. I find meaning in my writing, both my fiction (fiction is inherently about creating meaning) and on this blog. I find meaning through the communities I am part of, in the relationships I have formed, and in self transformation. I find meaning through learning more about the world and universe around me, and through shifting perspectives to remember how small I really am, both in scales of size and time.

What we are fighting against is a sense of futility, the thought that nothing we do matters or makes a difference, the urge to coast or settle or fall into a rut. Instead we believe in the butterfly effect. We believe our choices matter, whether that be the choice to recycle that piece of paper or to smile at the clerk at the grocery store or to give a significant amount of money to a charity or Kickstarter. We create meaning by being mindful about the cause and effect of what we do every day.

How do you create meaning in your life?

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People like to find a scapegoat.

Recent articles link the rise of loneliness in modern society with the use of social media, and although I have explored the idea before, I have become less convinced. Isn’t it convenient that we can blame technology, that behemoth with which we traditionally have an uneasy relationship, for the lack of connection we might feel? And yet, even if, as some figures suggest, Americans are now lonelier and have fewer confidants than in the past, there is still little data to show this trend is being caused by social media.

I agree with Dr. Grohol, who states: “[Using social media] doesn’t stop me from having those in-depth, face-to-face conversations, or put them off. I’m under no illusion (or delusion) that having a social networking circle of hundreds or thousands makes me more social.”

Instead, what social media allows us to do is maintain, in unprecedented volume and frequency, our weak ties. What is a weak tie? Someone who we don’t know very well, an acquaintance, if you will. By fostering so many weak ties, we are able to continue to expand our social networks and have potential reach to larger numbers of people, many of whom we will never directly meet or communicate with.

Obviously this is a major boon when we are, say, trying to sell something or build a reputation for ourselves or looking for a different job. But it can also be valuable because of the different insights and opinions we are exposed to, the potential actual friends we might meet, and the recommendations we might receive. Not to mention the benefits of being able to keep in touch, however superficially, with friends and family who live far away.

However, it’s not hard to see how social media might appear to make us lonely, especially if used as a kind of social substitute that it isn’t. If I am already feeling lonely and then I hop onto Facebook, the odds that spending half an hour reading my “friends’” status messages will make me feel any better are fairly low. But I have noticed a certain irrational expectation in myself that seeing all those photos and clicking “Like” a few times will magically pick up my spirits. Note to future self: that doesn’t work! Go out and see someone instead.

It’s interesting to watch ourselves learning how to deal with so many weak ties at once, a feat about which we are only now gaining experience. I like to think of social media as a party: a few of your really good friends are there, which is especially awesome. Then there’s those people who you’ve been seeing at these parties for years, and that’s the only time you talk to them. And there’s the newcomers, the people you don’t know so well but it’s interesting to chat with them for a few minutes. Except this is happening all the time on your computer, not just for three or four hours at a scheduled event.

And just like at a party, most people are trying to present their best selves. Many of them will keep their dirty laundry and deeper troubles mostly under wraps. A few of them might have embarrassingly public meltdowns. We’re surprised when  the perfect married couple announces their impending divorce, when that vibrant woman turns out to have been suffering from a life-threatening disease, when bits and pieces of messy life burst unavoidably out into public view.

And social media is very much the same. We are presented with a smooth and managed facade, and sometimes we forget the facade does not always reflect what’s going on under the surface. All those people in your social media networks who have perfect lives with adorable children and exciting jobs and exotic vacations? Maybe her child vomited all over the living room this morning, or that exciting company is going through a round of layoffs, or that exotic vacation meant forty-eight hours of pure, unadulterated suffering from food poisoning. Some people show this underbelly of their lives, but many choose not to. It’s the way weak ties work. And as depressing as all this seeming perfection can occasionally be, we mostly find it depressing because we are not used to weak ties; we haven’t internalized the knowledge that these public statuses are only a small percentage of the whole. We believe, often without question, the stories people choose to tell about themselves.

The societal shift we are experiencing is certainly not without its difficulties. But social media, and the internet as a whole, are just technological tools like all other such tools. Sometimes we use them skillfully, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we lack the understanding of how such tools work or for what they work best. Sometimes we’re not very interested in trying them out at all.

But I suspect loneliness arises much more from our physical environments and the strong ties that we either have or don’t have with other people. Strong ties that are fostered by face-to-face interaction, video chat, phone calls, and the exchange of letters and emails. Blaming a tool meant for developing weak ties for any trouble with strong ties seems misguided at best.

What do you think? Do you have less in-person conversations or strong ties because of the advent of social media? Have you been able to develop strong ties as well as weak ties through a social media service? How much does face-to-face time matter in your close relationships?

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Okay, so on Tuesday we talked about loneliness and social media. But now I want to go back to my husband’s original comment: “Loneliness is the endemic disease of our time.” Specifically, I want to explore how loneliness now is different than it’s been in the past.First off, I imagine that there have been lonely people and lonely moments in all times. I don’t want to invalidate this truth, merely turn the spotlight onto the last century or so, when American society has undergone what I’m guessing is a fairly radical shift.

Once upon a time, people didn’t move around as much as they do now. It was normal to spend your whole life in the same town, or if not the same town, then the same region. As a result (and possibly also as a cause), families tended to stick together and consist of many generations and branches. Also as a result, people grew up together and had an easier time staying in touch as adults. If you lived in “Small Town America”, you might know most or even all of the people who lived in your town, at least by sight. Between these geographically close family units and towns (and add in churches to make society even more close-knit), many social needs were met.

What changed? My husband tells me that many families split apart during the Great Depression, when people had to move to find work. This is when the idea of the nuclear family (parents and their children) emerged. More people moved to big cities, in which it is easy to find anonymity (even if you don’t want it). More people began to go away to college, and only some would return to their hometowns afterwards; the rest would go where the jobs and opportunities were, or follow their romantic partners (either back to their hometowns or to where they had a good job). In 1937, 73% of Americans said they were members of a church, as opposed to between 63-65% now. But estimates are that in the past few years, as few as 20% of Americans actually attend church every Sunday (40% is the high end of the range); regular attendance does, of course, provide the strongest community ties.

So this is our new reality. None of my extended family lives in my local area, and as a result I’ve never gotten to know them particularly well. I don’t belong to a church that gives me a social safety net. I live about 60 miles from where I grew up, which is just far enough away to make in-personal social interactions difficult (especially since so many other people have moved away). I live about 40 miles from where I went to college, and many of my college friends moved into the same area, which is one reason I ended up settling here. I hear complaints all the time from people in their 20s and 30s who share how difficult it is for them to meet people and make friends now that they’re out of school (not to mention the dating problem). Plus, at least here in Silicon Valley, it is fashionable (or maybe just reality) that everyone is extremely busy almost all the time, making personal interaction even more challenging due to scheduling difficulties.

Meanwhile, many of my friends live elsewhere: in Southern California, Arizona, Chicago, the Denver area, Arkansas, Texas, Toronto, and even Australia.

Taking all of this into account, it’s not surprising that people might be experiencing a greater sense of isolation, is it?

Into this void, we’ve seen first e-mail, then cell phones with no extra fees for long distance calls, and then social media, internet dating, and Skype emerge. And thank goodness, because I think that we as a society needed something that would make connecting feasible again, that would allow us both to maintain far-flung friendships and to meet new friends. Social media has become as popular as it is because it fills our need for community. Even huddled alone in our separate suburban houses (or city apartments, or the sparsely populated countryside), we can still be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Of course, for writers (who work alone so much of the time) and people who work from home (an expanding group), possessing some means through which to connect becomes even more critical.

Is loneliness really the endemic disease of our time? We’ve certainly seen a shift to a more isolated social model, but now we’re using technology to try to alleviate this problem. I certainly notice the difference in my day-to-day interactions, if I compare now with five years ago. What about you? How has your life changed?

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