Saturday, October 3, 2009

When I am alone, am I lonely?

I once asked a single friend who rarely dated if she was lonely. “When I look back on my life,” she replied, “I realize that I have spent most of my time alone. But when I think about the times when I was the loneliest, there was usually someone sitting next to me.” It is often easier to feel lonely in a noisy crowd than in an empty house filled with silence. Being alone is a physical condition, but being lonely is an emptiness that affects us emotionally, intellectually or spiritually.

Loneliness becomes more complex with age. In grammar school, loneliness is cured if someone agrees to come outside and play. In college, “playing with someone” is used as a distraction or temporary relief from thinking about the issues that separate us from everyone else. Later in life the escape strategies become more deceptive. People use alcohol, drugs, sex, work, religion, social activities, marriage, children, friendship, pets, music, television or exercise to escape the fear of being lonely. Any external device can be used to alter consciousness or to allow us to feel that we are connected to other people. Human beings were not created as self-sufficient organisms. Food, water and oxygen are required for survival. Perpetuating the species requires the union of egg and sperm. In colder climates, clothing is needed to protect the body from the devastating brutality of nature. Loneliness is a disease that can be fatal, but people who can find happiness and fulfillment alone can always create an environment that eliminates loneliness.

The avoidance of loneliness requires an internal or external connection through the heart, soul and mind to others, the universe, God or oneself. For some, the greatest loneliness is feeling separate from God (which may be an illusion instead of a reality). Many people take the “road most traveled” by thinking that they can avoid loneliness through conformity. Loneliness is a feeling that we are “different” or unconnected to other people. Conformity gives us the false reassurance that we are similar to everyone else. If we look similar to other people, and if our actions are “normal” and our thoughts are shared, then how could we be lonely? Conformity through religion is an effective cure for loneliness because similar people congregate at the same place at the same time to tell each other that their belief systems are shared by the group. Conformity of appearance avoids the fear of being judged negatively for being different. In the 60’s, everyone wore bell-bottoms. It was easier to conform to the rules of fashion than to be judged as being old-fashioned or outdated. In the 50’s, women were judged as being promiscuous if they dared to wear anything other than a one-piece bathing suit to the beach. Yet what is conformity? It is the illusionary reflection of ourselves in other people. If we continually see ourselves in others, then we falsely believe that we are not alone. And if we are not alone, then how could we be lonely?

I once asked a male friend why he was dating someone who he had nothing in common with and he replied, “I’m lonely. When I am with her I feel less alone.” Why do we believe that finding a mate solves the problem of loneliness? My friend’s relationship confused me because he should have felt lonelier in this relationship because none of his values were shared. Yet, for him, a physical connection overshadowed the need to connect intellectually or spiritually.

I once confessed to a group of people at my ski house that I wanted to share my life with someone similar to myself. I was immediately criticized. “How could you possibly desire someone similar? I want someone who is the complete opposite of myself,” adamantly replied a woman in the group. I had a difficult time understanding her point of view. With the goal of self-improvement, we spend our entire lives incorporating attributes that we find admirable and rejecting personality characteristics that we find offensive. Wouldn’t we be less lonely with someone who shared the values and attributes that we have chosen to accept? By seeking someone with opposite personality characteristics, aren’t we indirectly saying that we don’t desire the qualities we have developed in ourselves? Is it possible that we are admitting that being alone makes us lonely?

In Symposium, Plato makes the argument that we desire and love the attributes we lack, rather than the characteristics that we already possess. Plato wrote that “love is wanting something that you do not currently possess,” and the implication is that we seek to compensate for our weaknesses by finding those strengths externally. The basic argument -- that if a person currently possesses a certain quality, he would have no desire to acquire it -- is generally true. For example, a strong man does not desire strength because he already has it. A beautiful woman may not desire beauty because she already possesses it. Yet, there are a few fallacies with this generalization. First of all, we may desire to acquire attributes that we lack only if they are characteristics we want but have been unable to obtain. We surely would not desire to acquire a negative attribute, such as hatred, even though we may not already possess it. Second, this argument is too simplistic for love. With respect to a potential partner, we do not love someone simply because this person has characteristics that we do not possess. If this were the case, none of our basic values would be shared. For example, if we possessed honesty, we would not seek someone who possessed the opposite character trait. If we were open-minded and extroverted, we would not necessarily seek someone who is closed-minded and introverted. Furthermore, even if we desire a characteristic that we do not currently possess, why would we seek this attribute in another human being instead of trying to develop it ourselves? The presence of the personality trait in another person does not allow us to “own” the characteristic; it only ensures that we will be exposed to this particular attribute when we interact with the other person.

I understand the need to share life with someone who complements our personality traits, but I don’t understand why we would seek our opposite. I do believe that complementary attributes add depth and richness to a relationship. For example, if someone appreciates the arts and performs modern dance, it could be extremely fulfilling to find someone who also appreciates the arts but has a degree in art history. These two people share their appreciation of artistic endeavors but each person’s expertise is different. At the other end of the spectrum is someone who cannot appreciate the arts at all. How is a relationship enhanced when the woman is inspired by art and music, while the man is completely consumed by sports? The compromise appears to be a separation and increased loneliness, rather than unity. On a Sunday afternoon, the woman spends her time at an art gallery, while the man attends a game at the stadium or is mesmerized by a wrestling match on TV.

Creating a fulfilling relationship is similar to creating a delicious recipe. Some ingredients go well together, while the addition of others can create something extremely distasteful. It doesn’t mean that the additional ingredients are “bad,” it just means that when the ingredients come together, the combination can be undesirable. For example, peanut butter by itself is delicious. Asparagus, by itself, is also appetizing. Yet when you combine peanut butter with asparagus, the result can be catastrophic. Although the ingredients alone are favorable, together they can be repulsive. Peanut butter needs the appropriate complementary ingredients to enhance the end result. Peanut butter with jelly or bananas can be better than peanut butter by itself and asparagus with hollandaise can improve the taste of the asparagus. Similarly, a relationship can be enhanced when complementary “ingredients” or personality characteristics come together as one. In fact, a complementary connection may be the perfect cure for loneliness. There is an acceptance of the “basics” and the union of complementary interests, beliefs or values allows the relationship to transcend to a higher level.

Being physically alone is simple; it means that there is no other human being nearby. However, loneliness is only one of many feelings that can accompany the physical isolation. A person who is alone in a room praying to God may not feel lonely at all; and a person in a state of meditation can feel a sense of fulfillment and connection that transcends the human experience. The most enriching experience on earth can happen while someone is alone in nature because there can be an intense spiritual connection with the perfection of the universe.

If someone is lonely while being alone, the most transparent solution may be to invite another person to join the experience; but this solution is only physical. If the loneliness results from feeling alone emotionally, intellectually or spiritually, another person can actually exacerbate the loneliness. Loneliness is most effectively eliminated by connecting with something or someone that has similar ideas, values, beliefs or perceptions.

A scene from the movie Mahogany effectively illustrates this point. She was trying to prove that she wasn’t lonely because she was accepted by strangers. “Everybody loves me. I will never be lonely because I am a success!” she screamed. As her lover saved himself by leaving her behind, he retorted that no matter how popular she became, it would never cure her loneliness because “success means nothing without someone you love to share it with.” External acceptance is a disguise that hides the need for an intimate connection with another human being. Some people seek fame, popularity or recognition as a substitute for love and as an illusionary cure for loneliness. The saddest moment is when someone finally realizes that external “cures” cannot fill an emptiness that resides at the core of the soul.

I feel lonelier with people who cannot accept my individuality than when I am physically alone. I accept me. If there are actions I don’t accept, I change them. When I am sitting alone in my house, I find comfort in knowing that there is at least one person in the room who does not want me to be someone I am not. I don’t date often because I am usually lonelier socializing with someone who wants me to “fit in.” I’ve always accepted the fact that I am different and that I don’t always conform to other people’s expectations. Connecting with other people has always been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life; but it is a rare event, which is why it is so special. I am often alone without being lonely and I feel that I can cure loneliness only by being selective about whom I choose to spend time with. The problem isn’t solved by letting more people in. The solution is to share yourself, your dreams, and your values with people who can truly appreciate them.

A person who is not lonely alone may still feel intense loneliness if there is no one to communicate with. For example, the people who travel a path toward spiritual growth or enlightenment often become frustrated because it is difficult to find “classmates” or “teachers” who can enhance the journey. These people can cure their loneliness through internal fulfillment but may become lonely if they are unable to connect with like-minded individuals. In other words, although being alone with spiritual thoughts does not cause internal loneliness, there can be an external loneliness that is difficult to cure (i.e., being alone is not enough). Furthermore, this external loneliness can grow exponentially if the person continually retreats to the internally created “safe environment” that enables further spiritual growth (in an effort to increase self-fulfillment and reduce loneliness).

Unwittingly, these spiritual people may travel farther down the “road less traveled,” which further separates them the majority. They may actually reach a point where external connections feel impossible. Their only cure for an external solution is by reading spiritual literature or by using concentrated efforts to find the minority that shares similar belief systems. These people also need to accept that the majority may not connect with them intellectually or spiritually but there are still people whose company can be extremely fulfilling. For example, many people may not be able to teach wisdom, but if they are caring people, they can be appreciated for their generosity, compassion and ability to love. Not everyone has to connect on every level and it is important to realize that we may never find our spiritual clones.

Some people seek therapy to cure feelings of loneliness. Once a week, someone is paid to listen to our problems and help us find solutions. Therapy can be an effective process for reducing loneliness, but it can also increase it. We expect that the therapist will help us, understand us, and provide us with empathy and compassion. However, if the wrong therapist is chosen or if the person is facing unique problems that are misunderstood by the therapist, the patient can end up feeling more alone. Western medicine has the tendency to diagnose and prescribe. If a patient is on a spiritual path, these methods can be counter-productive. There is no standard medical diagnosis and no chemical cures. This person may actually need a shaman, rather than a psychologist, and in the Western world, these types of “therapists” are difficult to find.

The ultimate solution for loneliness is to first feel comfortable alone by finding spiritual fulfillment that is not dependent on others. After discovering internal peace of mind, we can increase our happiness and reduce our loneliness by sharing ourselves with other people. Yet, it is important to understand that loneliness is not necessarily cured by other people -- it can actually be created by them. Nothing is lonelier than pulling down the covers, and sliding into bed next to someone who makes you feel alone. Being alone is not a physical condition; it is only feeling lonely in the company of others.
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