I’ve been thinking a lot about loneliness lately.
It’s a topic I’ve been avoiding here because it’s scary. Loneliness. The new L word, I’d argue. A condition that most people are too ashamed to talk about, because who wants to attach that label to themselves?
And yet. According to a recent survey, we are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone, and only 53 percent of us report having meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis. In addition to a variety of negative health consequences, there is also growing body of evidence that loneliness can kill you.
I’ve felt lonely since I was a child. It’s a weird thing to say given that I grew up in a family with eight siblings, because I was pretty much surrounded by people at every waking moment. But I always felt different. I was bookish, for one thing, whereas the six siblings who were closest to me in age — all boys — were more drawn to sports and competitions of any kind. Being a girl who was into typically girly things amidst that macho rabble was difficult, not to mention deeply lame.
I carried that sense of being an outsider into my adulthood. Not really ever because I lacked companionship, but more because I didn’t feel like I fit in. That sentiment has waxed and waned over the years depending on what’s been going on in my life, but it has a way of creeping back in when things get rough.
This latest episode of depression has been a lot about my own loneliness crisis. Over the past few years I’ve had a run of bad luck with unsteady work, a couple of failed relationships, some financial disasters, and an increasing sense that I was getting too old to be so precariously situated. I could have weathered any one or two of those things at once, but all of those things at the same time weighed on me, particularly when I looked around and saw that most of my closest family and friends were having an opposite experience: settling in with new partners, having kids, flourishing in their careers, finally getting to a point where they could be comfortable financially.
Or at least that’s the story I was telling myself.
There’s truth in it, of course, but it’s not the whole truth. This is just the depressive mind at work — it retreats into the well-worn grooves of the stories you have about yourself. You know, the bad ones. The ones your therapist points out aren’t true.
At its heart, depression is about connection — or, more accurately — disconnection. The depressed mind feels deeply alone, deeply cut off from the world around it. Here’s a passage from Jonathan Franzen’s “How to Be Alone” that I think captures it:
“Depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and the rottenness of your life in particular. But the realism is merely a mask for depression's actual essence, which is an overwhelming estrangement from humanity. The more persuaded you are of your unique access to the rottenness, the more afraid you become of engaging with the world; and the less you engage with the world, the more perfidiously happy-faced the rest of humanity seems for continuing to engage with it.”
So yeah, the insidious thing about loneliness is that the longer it goes on, the more unworthy you feel, and the harder it is to pull out of it.
But I’m lucky. I have friends and family who help me keep things in perspective, and I have a job that allows me to work from anywhere, and I’ve been spending time with my sister and her family on their farm in rural Minnesota. It’s hard to feel disconnected from life when there are toddlers and animals and ripening plants to tend to. When I was thinking about going, my friend Chloe said it sounded like spending time on the farm would be a “deeply nourishing experience,” and she was right. It has been.
Not to say that I haven’t had my moments. I traveled back to California last month for the wedding of my cousin, and while I was excited about it (party in wine country!), I also had no small measure of dread going into it. Weddings are tough for me, though that’s another story.
But I needn’t have worried. One of the great things about getting older is that once you get to mid-life, you realize that nobody escapes unscathed. There was a moment on the dance floor when the band was playing “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” and I looked around at all the people dancing — my siblings, my cousins, my aunts and uncles, my dad — and I thought to myself, “there isn’t a single person here who doesn’t have something going on in their lives that they desperately wish wasn’t happening, or wasn’t true.” And in the same moment I recognized that it is these struggles that unite us. That if we were all truly sailing along without problems we wouldn’t need each other, wouldn’t fling ourselves whole-heartedly into an occasional bacchanal with wine and feasts and dancing to make ourselves feel OK, like we weren’t alone, like we had each other to make it through another day, another week, another month, another year.
Keith knew it and Mick knew it too, and that’s why their song about the endless frustration of never really having it all is one that can still bring multiple generations to the dancefloor for a few minutes of jumbled, sweaty ecstasy.And for that I am grateful.
On to some things I’ve been thinking about lately.
Tara Brach has a new two part talk on healing depression that is one of the most revelatory things I’ve ever encountered on the topic. It encompasses the clinical and the therapeutic and the personal, and I cried when I listened to it because I felt so seen. If you want to understand more about depression, this is a good place to start. And even if you’re like me and have both experienced it and read about it extensively, it still offers something to learn.
While I was doing some research on the loneliness epidemic, I came across The Loneliness Project, an interactive web archive where people submit their experiences with loneliness. Here’s the description:
At The Loneliness Project, we believe that stories have power—the power to heal both listener and teller, and to show us that we aren’t ever truly alone. Stories are powerful tools for building empathy and growing kindness. Those shared here are deeply personal yet profoundly universal. They reveal something about being human.
It’s a worthy mission and a fascinating, if heartbreaking, read.
It’s almost 10Q time! This is another cool web project. Inspired by the focus on reflection during the Jewish High Holidays, 10Q leads you through a series of daily questions that give you a chance to look back on what happened and what you learned over the course of the past year, and to chart a new path forward. I’ve been doing it for eight years now, and I always look forward to the day they email me my answers from last year so I can see how things shook out.
How about this poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty, “Why Bother?” I came across it the other while I was wondering why the fuck I committed to writing a regular newsletter about being nuts. 😝
And finally, Ram Dass, one of my favorite spiritual teachers, recently collaborated with Justin Boreta of the electronic group The Glitch Mob to produce this guided meditation with an ambient music accompaniment, and I HIGHLY RECOMMEND it. Do it alone or do it with a friend, but just do it.How’s it going with you?
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p.p.s. Happy September! This is my favorite month.