Caitlin wants me to notice her sandals or her psychotic Mrs. Potato Head concoction. Quinn wants me to see every nook and cranny of the elaborate Lego city he has been laboring over for months. Aidan wants me to see his most recent library find and to delight with him in its knowledge.
They are asking for my attention. But they are asking for so much more. They are asking to be seen, really seen. They want to be seen in a way that fills them with a sense of belonging. Because loneliness is epidemic in our world, and an experience of belonging is like a bright-hot sun, burning away the fog of our isolation…
I can’t forget the first time I witnessed loneliness, and I can still feel the way it ruptured me.
I was in grade school, playing hooky on a Friday afternoon, traveling with my father to a Chicago Bulls game. At a roadside McDonalds, I was eating my fries and (always) saving my cheeseburger for last, when I glanced at the table opposite us.
My eyes suddenly itched and I felt something throb behind them.
Sitting several feet away was a man whose image was instantly seared into my mind, because his loneliness was oozing from every pore. A youngish man, probably in his mid-30s, bushy red hair, eyeglasses thick and slightly askew, weak chin (trembling?), a short sleeve shirt and a clashing tie, big-sad eyes staring into the distance, nibbling on a French fry.
He spoke to me with those eyes, and they said, “I’m all alone and I’m used to it and I’m resigned to it; there is nothing more for me.”
Maybe he messed me up because I was a therapist even before I was a kid. Or, more likely, he broke my heart because he was a mirror for my own loneliness—the loneliness of a painfully shy kid enduring his fourth school in five years.
Either way, I was just a clueless kid, and I had no way of knowing I had just embarked upon a journey that would take me into the loneliest spaces of countless lives. In my clinical practice, I am cautiously, tentatively invited into those spaces. And they still rupture me.
I am invited in with such regularity I have come to believe loneliness is at the heart of our most painful experiences. It’s the depression convincing us we are alone in the darkness and no one notices. It’s the anxiety screaming that we are on our own without protection and there is nothing safe or stable to land on. It’s the pulse of a thousand addictions. It’s a child’s rebellion shouting, “If I can’t be looked upon with a warm eye, I will settle for a frustrated, angry, disciplinary eye.”
Loneliness is everywhere. And nowhere. All at the same time.
Because it is so easily drowned out by a loud and crowded world.
We think we are a connected people in a world busy with contact and companionship. We sit in traffic jams thick as quicksand, we work in offices where there is never enough space, and we build and buy bigger homes because we feel like we are always tripping over each other. We tweet our every thought to a thousand followers. We instantly upload photos to Facebook, updating friends and family about our location and our most recent activity. We share videos of ourselves on YouTube with the tap of a finger, and within hours we have thousands of viewers. In such an interconnected world, with so many opportunities to speak and to be noticed, how can we possibly be lonely?
Our loneliness is growing because it is only relieved by being seen. It is only relieved by a slow, careful attentiveness and a deep knowing of who we are.
And in a world like ours, being really seen has become an antiquated experience.
When my children ask me to “lookit,” and I erupt with excitement and grab my phone and take a picture and spend the next ten minutes posting it on Facebook, I think I’m affirming them, but I’m leaving them unseen. I’m leaving them in the fog of loneliness. When I buy them the latest video game and send them to the basement with their friends, I think I’m giving them the best of things, but I’m leaving them unseen. When I listen to the story of their day while opening the mail or checking my text messages or flipping through the channels, I think I’m responding to them, but I’m leaving them unseen.
Our children are asking us to sit down, to wonder at their experiences, to probe them with thoughtful questions, to marvel at the sun glinting off their eyelashes, to throb with the gentle bumping of the pulse at the base of their neck, to understand they have depths to be discovered and that a lifetime will never be enough. They are asking to be seen.
Last week, one quarter of a century after my McDonalds encounter with loneliness, I was sitting in a different restaurant, and I witnessed the opposite of loneliness.
I witnessed belonging.
I had just settled in to write the Marriage Is For Liars post. As I was waiting for my computer to boot up, I noticed an attractive sound behind me. I turned around to find a group of nine clearly-retired, silver-haired men, sharing coffee and the quiet murmur of conversation, punctuated by comfortable laughter at the telling of familiar jokes and anecdotes.
My heart hummed and longed.
These were the least lonely-looking men I had ever seen. There was a kind of connection and belonging here that sang to me. Was I witnessing the fruit of a people able and willing to really see each other?
And here’s the kicker:
I can’t write without music, and I’d left my headphones in the car, so I snuck out the building’s back door to retrieve them, and when I tried to re-enter, the door was locked. But one of the men saw me. He eased himself out of his chair and slowly hobbled across the restaurant, past a number of consumers who had already looked at me and glanced away. He opened the door, and he said, “Come on in, son.”
Come on in, son. I see you and I welcome you.
In an instant, I felt like I belonged to that group of men, and I knew the companionship I was witnessing was no accident. These men had a way of seeing people that gave birth to a sense of belonging in others. I felt a welling-up of gratitude. This time the pressure behind my eyes felt like freedom instead of emptiness. And I was nearly knocked off my feet by how quickly belonging can happen when someone really takes the time to see you.
I have a friend who sees me. And this week, while our kids and wives slept, we ate a late dinner, and he reminded me loneliness isn’t the enemy. He told me loneliness is an alarm clock, waking us up to our deep, aching need for connection and belonging and relationships in which we are seen.
The alarm is ringing, and we need to wake up and see each other. And in order to do that, we need to grossly mismanage our time.
We need to start really screwing up our agendas and schedules and expectations for life.
We need to get out of the plans in our own heads and get into the moment, noticing the people around us and taking the time to slow down and see them.
We need to decide that taking time is sometimes more important than being on time.
We need to blink ourselves awake in line at the restaurant or supermarket or post office, really seeing the person in front us as someone who climbed out of bed this morning and brushed their teeth and has a story worth telling.
We need to disconnect from the seduction of high-definition displays and, instead, connect with the inner lives of the ones we love.
We need to decide the work of our lives will be raising a generation that knows what it means to be seen—seen in such a way that they overflow with belonging and spill it everywhere they go.
Sometimes, this is how therapy heals. It provides a space in which we are really seen for the first time in our lives, a relationship in which a real sense of belonging can grow in us. And once we have been seen—once we know the warmth of it on our skin—we can go out into the world, connecting with people who will see us and to whom we can belong.
And along the way, as we receive the gift of belonging, we can become the gift-giver. We can begin to see other people. Our world is lost in the fog of loneliness and isolation, but we can become a people set ablaze with the ability and desire to know others and to usher them in to the kind of belonging for which they are so deeply aching.
If we can do this, we may yet become a brilliant, dazzling light, burning off the fog of loneliness and shining a redemptive warmth into the darkest and loneliest of places.
What’s Your Story: Can you recall a time someone really saw you, a time when you were given the gift of belonging and it dispelled your loneliness? Please feel free to share your story, or any other comments below.
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Photo Credit: Vanessa Shakesheff via Kristie Vosper.