Who can forget the Beatle’s song, “Eleanor Rigby”? Every time I have heard it in my life I ran to the radio to change the station. It is a song which depresses me to hear it and especially the mournful refrain.
“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
There are no shortage of songs about loneliness. I will offer up only a couple more. How about Three Dog Night with their woeful, “One is the Loneliest Number”?
“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do
Two can be as bad as one
It’s the loneliest number since the number one”
And what of Roy Orbison’s lament of “Only the Lonely?”
“Only the lonely
Know the heartaches I’ve been through
Only the lonely know I cry and cry for you.”
This part of the human condition is mirrored in music, art, literature, movies, and even comedy. There is a special understanding among people who have experienced the pain of being lonely. The irony is that we are connected through our isolation. It is very possible to feel lonely despite the fact that there are so many other people experiencing the same feelings.
What exactly does it mean to feel lonely? It isn’t the same thing as being alone. People quite often cherish their alone time. I know I do. I like to have time to rest and to allow my thoughts to meander without the echo of another voice. I enjoy the peacefulness and even beauty that isolation can produce. Some of my most creative moments seem to happen when I am alone walking or riding my bike down woodsy paths. There are many good things about being alone. So where does this feeling of loneliness enter the picture?
Does loneliness depend upon the physical proximity of other people? I would say absolutely not. I have felt some of my most lonely times in the midst of crowds where your anonymity can seem profound. I have felt it on bus rides through the city where all eyes gaze blankly away from any recognition of humanity. We sit like cardboard boxes in a row, full of nothing. We come and go without any notice at all.
On the other side of things, I have felt a kinship with a complete crowd of strangers as when I ran with a thundering crowd for the sake of people who have Autism. I felt the tears of communion with others who shared a common goal. We were all running to help people like my youngest son who has this disorder. I felt a part of a larger whole and I felt purposeful.
Can one feel lonely with friends? The answer is yes. I have felt the sting of loneliness while talking one on one with a friend or acquaintance. Your depressed mind takes you to a far corner where the attempt at simple conversation leaves you dry and lifeless. It seems a strange occurrence but sometimes company can make you feel more lonely than not. And then there are times when I have been with a more silent friend and I feel a great intimacy and bonding. It is possible to be alone but together if that makes any sense at all.
You can feel lonely with family, with a spouse, and with your kids. These are all possible combinations. The feeling of loneliness is not dependent upon the physical closeness of other people.
Can one be admired and loved and still feel lonely? Again the answer is yes. Look at the famous for the answer to this question. Marilyn Monroe stands out as an example for me. She was so sought after, so cherished by many but yet she still felt extremely lonely. People did not really know her beyond her image. Fame does not make loneliness go away. One of the most poignant moments in a film was with Bette Midler who plays a singing star much like Janis Joplin. In the movie, The Rose, Midler tearfully tries to make human connection from a public telephone. She is unsuccessful and we see her left alone in the rain, receiver in hand. It is a stark contrast to her magnetic presence on stage with a chanting crowd of fans.
Again I ask, what then, does it mean to be lonely?
From my personal point of view it means to feel disconnected from others in an emotional and even spiritual way. It means to feel that you are misunderstood. It means that you feel unappreciated and unworthy. It means that you feel nobody cares. Ultimately… loneliness makes you wonder if you matter at all to anyone.
I am not sure if depression causes loneliness of if loneliness causes depression. I do think they go hand in hand regardless of the directionality of causation. Depression can make us think that we are unworthy which leads us to be hesitant about seeking connection. These negative self-thoughts can also cause us to hinder the relationships we do have and to take things the wrong way. If we feel that nobody likes us then we tend to seek that sort of validation to make our negative thoughts come true. It is a bad cycle to be in for sure.
I am certain of one thing and it is that we humans are biologically geared for needing and wanting human interaction. But we are selective it seems. Not just any interaction will do. We do grade our relations with others by things like the strength of connection.
And here is the million dollar question. What is the special IT which we feel with some people which makes us feel that we are not alone? What makes for true connection?
Then too some people ease their loneliness through non-human friendships like taking care of a pet. Others rely on their connection to God and their religious beliefs. Still others use work or hobbies to curb feelings of isolation. There are as many remedies to loneliness as there are people in the world.
I am very interested in what you think. How would you define loneliness? What is the cure? What helps you to feel less lonely?
Please share your thoughts. You help others when you do.