I’ve been thinking about loneliness lately. I am not lonely. Or alone. Nearly ever. The last time I can remember feeling lonely was in college. It was junior year. 1992. Folks, that is a long time ago. And the ironic thing is that I was not alone. I was surrounded by people. People who I loved. People who loved me. Living with my sweet, gentle, long-suffering roommate/best friend. I think I felt misunderstood. I was likely depressed. I felt isolated from others. Left behind. And quite full of self-pity. It passed. Tip: If feeling lonely at 20 years old AND assigned to read The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day AND then choose to fill other hours watching Oprah (often about weight loss or family estrangement) -You will feel worse.
Being alone has never been a negative for me. I know that some people hate it. I relish eating lunch alone. Coffee out somewhere by myself. Lunch alone. I see movies alone. That is certain bliss. I can choose the movie, the time, eat my popcorn without passing it, think my own thoughts and nobody interrupts to talk to me. (I know I’m so selfish) I enjoy a long drive alone. I enjoy a few quiet hours in the house when the dog is at the groomers. I think this means that although I fall squarely in the middle of the extraversion/introversion scale…I need introverted time. But also…I’m very spoiled because I have options if I want people. I have the people. They are everywhere underfoot. My people are very loud people.
We volunteer as a family at a housing complex a few miles from our house. We do odd jobs like cleaning windows and moving furniture, flipping mattresses, hanging art and boxing up holiday decorations for residents. And then we also make and serve them lunch. This is my favorite part. That crew loves a good lunch. I love to try to serve a good lunch. I am always struck, every single time, how lonely people seem. They are desperate for connection with others, with us. They are excited to see us and see our children. They just want to watch and talk to my children. What classes are they taking? Do they LOVE school? (they are begging my children to lie to them) Do they like to fish? Do they play football? They love our stories about pedestrian things. They ask where we bought our spinach leaves and where I got the recipe for the egg bake. They want to know if I know that HyVee will cut whole fruit for only a $1. I did not! Many of the residents are elderly. Most live alone. Some are good at joining in. Some are not as comfortable doing so. There is a cool table. I kid you not. There is a cool table at the senior housing complex.
But when we leave, and this may all be in my head, I feel a lift in the mood. The energy is good. They have had a meal together. Literally broken bread together-some of it gluten free. They have had camaraderie. A laugh. If someone is under the weather, someone brings up a plate. They discuss the new changes at the building, the weather, politics. They have heard a new story from outside the four walls of their apartment and shared a story of their own. (below a 2015 photo of dessert service)
We all end up there, if we are lucky. Living more on our own and with more strangers than family. Such is the cycle of life. Some people seem better cut out for it than others.
I wonder how much craving a sense of belonging contributes to the strife in our crazy world. Humans so desperate to belong that they will belong to the wrong things. Young kids who don’t stand up for a classmate who is bullied. Teenaged girls who get drawn into a rumor mill out of fear they too will be cast out of the group. All the hurt and vitriol when the student athlete doesn’t make the top team. Neighbors who don’t include “that family” at the BBQ. An employee who goes against personal ethics because coworkers expect them to protect the company. Groups united by hate against something/anything/anyone because being united in rage is more important than being civil, moral, compassionate. Is membership more of a survival skill than empathy? It was MLK day two days ago. I think he might openly weep at how few strides we have made. If I read too many news stories, I think we are sliding backward if not standing still as a society.
Last week I dropped off my middle schooler at school in the morning. There were groupings of kids standing around outside. Girls with matching hair and matching backpacks and matching everything. Boys playing basketball. Kids at the curb on their phones. My son had his backpack, his ski bag, his skis, and 3 other things in his hand. He awkwardly hauled it out of the car, banging his bag on the side of my car. A lot of the kids were watching as he got out of the car and I was thinking how lonely middle school can be. I imagine there were lonely kids on that curb standing in a group but not invited to a birthday party. Left out of the group text. Not included at the lunch table. If loneliness was ever a mental construct , surely that age group has nearly perfected it. Lonely plus narcissistic is a deadly combo. As he shut the car door and juggled all of his things I heard someone yell, “JACK!” Then another, “Jack! with a wave. He smiled. And it made me smile. And I held back any tears since Jack really needs me to ‘calm down’ these days. Someone was happy to see him. Someone called out.
Is that all it takes to not feel alone?
We need to have someone call out our name.
We need to call out to one another with a wave.