Loneliness is an epidemic, made worse by the pandemic. I imagine right now in the world there are thousands of lonely people, stuck in their homes. And zoom doesn’t quite cut it, does it?
Loneliness doesn’t just happen when we’re alone. We can feel most lonely when we’re surrounded by people. We feel lonely in a crowd. At a party. Or when something big happens and no-one understands.
I’m a sensitive person who finds it hard to express what I need to others: that can be lonely. I happily support others, but shy away from asking for support myself. It can be difficult feeling like you have to deal with big issues all on your own: that no-one “gets” it.
Recently, I had my reputation put in question.
An old friend, one I haven’t seen for years, spread gossip about me in our small town. It was nasty and when I found out, I was hurt and shocked. It’s hard to understand why someone would go out of their way to spread harmful rumors. I do know her life is often sad and painful, and perhaps she’s angry at the world — I just happened to be the part of the world she targeted that particular week. I can only guess why. Why does anyone gossip? To feel close to others; share a secret and build intimacy. Perhaps it made her loneliness feel less that day.
When I heard about the rumors I ignored them at first. I thought, “No-one will believe that, surely?” And, like I suspected, it died down. But after quarantine ended here — a full year later — there it was again; rearing it’s ugly teeth and snarling at my door, a deranged rabid dog.
Quarantine was hard near the end. It weakened my mental strength. I don’t think I’m the alone in that. Who would have thought lock-down would be so draining? I was low, anxious, exhausted — sound familiar?…and there wasn’t much fight left in me. I was wounded prey on the edge of the herd with a wild dog threatening to devour me.
I lay in bed for two solid days and cried. The gossip was bad, but the alone-ness was worse. Who do you talk to when no-one you know has experienced the same thing you’re going through? Who can you talk to when it looks like an overreaction to everyone else? That felt lonely. I know now I was overreacting. Of course, yet again, it all blew over. The rabid dog was shot. The gossip died a quick death. But I was shaken and at the time, it felt like I was under attack, standing alone against an unpredictable beast.
“This is not the end of everything you love and have built,” my partner said. “It’s just something you’re going through today.”
“But how do you know that? What if it is?” I replied.
Loneliness, sometimes, is being surrounded by people and feeling misunderstood.
I chose a rock where I could see right down the valley for miles. I’ve been in many forests but never alone.
I live in the middle of a long stretch of rain-forest that weaves it’s way down the coastline and spills into the ocean.
This weekend, after the gossip had ended, my partner and I decided to walk into the forest, taking our first trip away from home since quarantine. We walked an hour into the thick mossy forest, and emerged in the middle of a valley. My partner decided to explore further up the hill, but I wanted to sit and enjoy the view.
I chose a rock where I could see right down the valley for miles. I’ve been in many forests but never alone. My first thought, as I listened to the pounding of my partner’s boots on the muddy path, the snapping of branches as he pushed past trees and shrubs, was, “If I’d bought my phone I could’ve recorded this view to share online!” My brain raced with ideas of photos and videos I could’ve taken. But my phone was back at the car, an hour away.
Then, everything went quiet. A fog silently rolled over the edge of the valley, turning the sky a soft grey. Lush, green trees filled my view for as far as I could see in every direction. Birds occasionally flitted above trees; they sang to one another.
“I’m the only human in this whole area,” I thought, realizing how rare that is.
I thought it would be scary. I don’t like being in strange places on my own. I have an overactive imagination that makes it uncomfortable; all the terrible things that could happen play out like horror movies in my mind. But not this time.
The longer I sat alone, the calmer I felt. The less alone I felt. “This is the cure for loneliness,” I thought as I sat and looked at the valley. To be alone and connected to the world like this.
I’m not sure how practical that is in reality. I mean, how many people in the world can find a spot as isolated as that? How many people have access to valleys full of trees? I live in an unusual place full of forests, beaches, and mountains, and very few people. I’m aware that’s not the norm. Perhaps there’s something in it though?
- In our houses, looking at our computers, scrolling through social media, watching others who seem to ‘fit’ better than we do, have more friends, more love, more connections than we do — that makes us feel lonely.
- Surrounded by people and feeling misunderstood — that makes us feel lonely.
- You can get more friends; you can cling to a partner and do everything with them; you can have kids, get housemates, throw parties — fill your house with people, and still feel lonely.
Or you can sit alone in the world, even if it’s your own bedroom looking out at the sky, and feel connected and calm.
I have a friend who, even though he’s only in his early twenties, has mastered being alone. He spends whole weeks by himself, wandering the beach tracks, kayaking around the coast, hiking in the forest, and he loves it. He’s social and has plenty of friends but much prefers his own company.
When I left my marriage two years ago, I was struggling to fill the empty space in the weekends when my kids went to their dad’s. Alone for the first time in over 16 years, I wanted advice on what to do all day as a single person.
“I’m sorry you’re struggling,” he said. “You need to learn to be your own best friend.” His advice really helped me at the time, but I still filled up most of my free weekends with people and socializing, or work and social media.
Sitting in that valley I finally understood what my friend meant.
When we can feel calm sitting alone, doing nothing except being with ourselves and enjoying our own company, we stop feeling lonely — we’re our own best friend.
When we feel calm by ourselves, we don’t feel so desperate to fill the empty spaces up with other people.
It’s been a few weeks now since the gossip incident and I’ve had time to reflect. It felt like a lonely time of being misunderstood and having to cope all on my own. I see now that was my own doing. I need to reach out and ask for support when I need it, because it’s there. People want to support you and often we don’t let them. We sit in our loneliness instead — hugging it to ourselves and saying, “No-one understands.”
I feel blessed to have my family and friends. We do need people who love us.
I feel blessed when readers and other writers connect with me — especially when something resonates with them, when they relate and we both feel understood. We all have a deep need to be understood.
Loneliness is tough and we do need others, especially in difficult times. But maybe we also need to learn to be calmly alone. There are times when our loneliness is caused by too much social contact. Sometimes, to feel less lonely, we need to sit by ourselves with our phones turned off, enjoy our own company, and listen to the birds.