Before I started writing this, I was staring at my screen for a good few minutes, wondering how to begin. The thing is, I have a lot to say on the topic swirling round my head, but none of those words form what I understand to be an answer. Much less one I’ve managed to live my way into. As I’ve never been one to profess to have the answers anyway, I choose to write regardless.
With that in mind, we can consider the following an opening for discussion I don’t see spoken of enough, and yet I understand the experience to be rampant and the effects wide reaching.
That topic is loneliness.
Part of the reason I believe loneliness is so challenging to discuss is because it feeds into a wider, social conversation about ‘the way we live’ and the breakdown of traditional social networks and support that would naturally see us living within connected and interweaving communities. When you look at the challenges from this context, any form of solution feels overwhelming.
Regardless of its relevance, I’m not interested in discussing things from this perspective in this moment. I don’t want to talk to you from the level of theory, or academics, or big picture thinking. Right now, I want to kneel in the soil, hold hands and look an individual human in the face and tell them- and maybe this person is you- I know what it’s like to be lonely.
We acknowledge it as a thing to be worked out.
There are so many of us out there who understand.
We tend to see loneliness as an emotional state, but it also has a depleting and at times crushing effect on the body. It’s for that reason that it can feel inescapable and terminal- and like any state of being, it’s not.
It’s for this reason, the heaviness of the physical reality it creates, that it can be hard to rally the forces to take the actions to do the things that brings about connection and well-being.
There are, of course, many versions of loneliness, many nuances on the spectrum that are individually determined and assigned. I remember having a long phone conversation with my best friend Kathy and talking about something we’d both experienced from a very early age, a kind of existential loneliness. One that hangs in the background like an atmospheric energy, a lingering that sticks to your skin no matter who or what you’re with.
A loneliness you see constantly out the corner of your eye.
It’s the ‘there’s something missing’ loneliness; the one that you can’t quite put your finger on, and perhaps it’s more of the spiritual design. When I first learned the word “fernweh”- the motivating force for the creation of the Longing & Belonging retreats that I co-teach- “longing for a place you’ve never been”, I felt that to be the closest description of what it was I felt, that we were trying to pin down in conversation. A cellular yearning for the campfires and comradery that lives in the clay of our bodies and remains unactualized in our modern reality. Not only longing for a place you’ve never been but longing for a connection you know you’ve had on some level in the past and since lost.
There’s the loneliness born of trauma and unwellness, that does not necessarily have to be your own. I know for me, growing up in a household with the thread of mental health instability meant that interactions could become a delicate dance of preserving some sort of superficial peace at the expense of true connection and exchange. A necessary state of being for survival and yet not without its consequences. Hopefully the conversation opening up around mental health will see this happening less and less. I fear probably not fast enough.
And then there’s the rawness of loneliness that is alone-ness. Where you do lack the physical proximity of community. Where there’s a yearning for your people. Your crash on the couch and do nothing with people. Your mindless conversation while you cook together people. Your it’s been a kind of rough day can we just hang out people.
Many of us find ourselves inadvertently in this position as adults, even if the start point wasn’t here. I know for me, a lot of moving around in my early adult life meant I was in the position socially of constantly starting again. And now, in the area I live in, I started out as self-employed, my children are home schooled; I sit outside the social fabric of how many connections in adulthood are formed. I have friends- the best friends- it just happens that they live many flights away. There are more than many times over the course of a week when I wish it was a phone call and a ten-minute drive to see my people on the other side.
I think the conversation around loneliness also feeds into the challenges some of us face with our equine partners and companions; the difficulty in being able to separate out a simple misunderstanding on behalf of our horses, with the feeling of despair that they don’t love us or like us, or any manner of story we project. True human community creates context for our problems; the sharing creates perspective, dissolving the narrow focus and hard edges we can sometimes, inadvertently develop when we feel we are constantly dealing with the world alone.
Loneliness can blow things out of proportion and cause us to load things onto people and places and things not equipped or designed to carry the load, even if that was never our intention or desire.
Does that absolve us from personal responsibility? Of course not. But it can increase our empathy for the reasons why.
I mentioned at the start that this was not a writing with the answers. But it is an acknowledgement. It’s a seeing of the situation as ‘a thing’. It’s a letting you know that if you see yourself in this, there are many more of us that see you too. A getting down in the soil, the holding of hands and a moment to acknowledge that sometimes it can be tough.
And a reminder, that even if we don’t know right now, everything is figureoutable.