What I Want My Daughter to Know About How to Make a Brave Face

lonely

Photo Credit: Bigstock (MilanMarkovic)

“Make a scared face.”

It’s bedtime and my wife and I are in the bathroom with our six-year-old, Caitlin. She’s brushing her teeth, and I’m looking on, enjoying the banter, as my wife prompts Caitlin to make faces in the mirror.

Caitlin’s eyes grow wide and her mouth goes agape. “That’s not scared, that’s surprised,” her mother teases her. Caitlin giggles, smiling around the gap where her two front teeth used to be.

“Make a sad face.” Caitlin’s lower lip juts out and she bats her eyelashes repeatedly. “That’s not sad, that’s pouting!” her mother exclaims. Caitlin laughs again, knowing she got caught.

The life of a psychologist’s kid.

They continue to cycle through faces, each one some mixture of emotions and experiences, never quite pure, until I chime in, “Make a lonely face.”

Instantly, without thought, my daughter’s face goes dark, she turns her face not toward the mirror but away from it and from us, and she casts her eyes downward at the ground. My heart leaps into my eyes, where it takes liquid form. My wife’s breath catches in her throat, and a tender, “Oh,” escapes her lips.

Caitlin is six and she knows exactly what loneliness feels like.

And she knows exactly what we all do to make it worse.

Loneliness is as much a part of being human as is breathing. The question isn’t, do you feel lonely? The question is, what do you do with the lonely that you feel?

Most of us look away, and we look down.

We decide we’re lonely because we’ve done something wrong or we are something wrong. We personalize it. Assume blame for it. Rather than gazing back at others long enough to realize everyone else is lonely, too, we turn our truest face away from the people we want to love and be loved by.

In other words, we multiply our loneliness.

The truth is, we are made for each other—souls scattered like stars but each of us a light within the same night sky, each of us meant to find belonging amongst a constellation of other stars—and loneliness is the gravity meant to bring us all back together.

Instead, we let it become the force that drives us farther apart.

We look down.

We look away.

As Caitlin showed us her lonely face, I wanted to take her by the chin and tilt her face up. I wanted to tell her what I hope for:

I hope her lonely face will look like her brave face.

I hope she’ll stare back into the mirror, eyes ablaze with the starlight inside of her.

I hope she’ll practice staring directly into the eyes of the faces looking back at her.

And I hope she’ll find a way to say this: “I’m lonely but I’m not bad, and I’m done making my loneliness worse by thinking so. I know you’re lonely, too. But that means neither one of us is truly alone. It means I know a little bit about what it feels like to be you, and you know a little bit about what it feels like to be me. Let’s start there. Let’s be together in our loneliness. Let’s be drawn together by that part of our humanity.”

I hope she can say that until she finds someone else who knows it’s true. I hope it for her. And for me. And for you.

I hope it for all of us scattered stars.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Disclaimer: Kelly's writings represent a combination of his own personal opinions and his professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with him via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Kelly does not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accepts no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

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  • Lynette Janneker Julius

    I truly appreciate the article on children’s facial expressions. I have never asked them to display the loneliness face, which was an eye-opener for me. It is heart breaking that children are au fair with expressions even before age 6. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      It was a surprise to me, too, Lynette, and I don’t think I even realized loneliness had a face until she did it. We can learn a lot from children.

  • Lynda Wyant

    This, Kelly, is an extraordinary piece. Your use of self and your family, in clear, sparse language conveys the message in a most powerful way. As an LCSW, who often must exercise restraint not to “talk in chapters”, I learn from you. Well done. I will share.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you so much, Lynda, and thank you for the good work you’re doing, regardless of how “wordy” it is. 🙂

  • Mike Gates

    Happy Wednesday!

    I know this is a serious subject ( and well done), but I can’t get past the point that it was all fun and games until Dad chimed in. Way to go, DAD. :rollseyes: 😀

    I’ve got a really good friend who is lonely at the moment. He’s in a large, populous state. One of its largest cities. And the dude is lonely. There are times when it is OK to be lonely and that shouldn’t be overlooked, but this guy has managed to isolate himself in the midst of a crowd. It is weighing on him, but I don’t know if that’ll prompt a shift or not.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Ha! Right? Dad definitely gravitates more naturally toward serious than silly. Thank goodness for her mom! Ironically, big crowded cities can be very hard places to make connections. So much about the environment can encourage privacy and distance. Have you heard of meetup.com? I know people who have had good success, especially in urban areas, connecting through it.

  • Carrie

    Thank you, Kelly. I went to a party recently and left feeling very lonely. But I remembered what you said about marriage not curing our loneliness, but giving us someone to be lonely with. I transferred that to this group of friends and realized that I am not alone in my loneliness. The more I realize that we are all in this together, the less I feel lonely. The more I allow myself to feel lonely when it happens, the more I am okay with it.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Carrie, this is lovely, to hear about you putting these ideas into action. And that word “allow” is so important. It is a close relative of “embrace.” 🙂

  • Thank you, Kelly for an extremely timely and sensitive write up. It was exquisite for me! I have recently separated from my husband and so I understand the loneliness, but one thing that I have found that helps me is that when I feel lonely, I go inside myself. I find that lonely little girl and hug her and tell her I love her and am with her. ALWAYS it works! I find that I am not so lonely anymore. The truth that I have discovered is that we can be alone and “loneliness” is a call to “come home to ourselves.” I do this by going inside and then finding myself there. Then, I can go forth to be able to help someone else also find their own true inner home. I cannot show others how to do this unless I know that it works within me… and it does for me. Thank you again for the great write up and for your wonderful words. I especially loved the image of being “scattered stars.” Brilliant! 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      There is so much wisdom here, Jenny! Yes, so often the lonely experience is arising from that kid within ourselves and we can be a companion to him or her. So true! The idea of coming home to ourselves evokes one of my favorite books, “Anam Cara,” which translates “soul friend.” You might like it. And blessings upon you as you continued to redeem such painful circumstances.

      • Hi Kelly, I actually have that book “Anam Cara” and I love its concept! Thank you for the reminder to go back and dip into it again. Thank you for your blessings!

  • JC

    “I know a little bit about what it feels like to be you, and you know a little bit about what it feels like to be me.” This is a true statement. Perhaps the fact we all know it, is partially why few of us have patience enough to deal with things that upset us about others. They should know how we feel and we expect it from them. The brave face…I love that line of thinking. Bravely looking back at someone who has reminded me how lonely I feel and reminding them that none of us are alone.

    John 14: 16-18
    16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;
    17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.
    18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.