“Mommy, Daddy, Lookit!”

I hear the words all the time. “Daddy, lookit!”

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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 And, as always, thanks for reading. It’s a gift. 

Photo Credit: Vanessa Shakesheff via Kristie Vosper.

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+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Lacey Summers

    I really identify with this statement:

    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.”

    This dynamic regularly discourages me. My 4 year old daughter asks me to “see her” and give her attention, but I find that I am holding back a silent scream or cry as the day goes on…and it’s only at her bedtime that I feel both relief and sadness, because I know that I’ve screwed up again by being angry and impatient with her.

    Oh how I WANT to “see” her and raise her with a profound knowledge of how loved she is. I’m terrified that she won’t because of my responses to her.

    I work part-time from home, but am with my daughter and 1 year old son most of the time. It is the every-day child-rearing challenges plus the stress of being married to a police officer that bring out my worst.

    I think what discourages me so much is that I begin the day INTENTIONALLY striving to be patient, kind, soft-spoken to my daughter — and each day ends feeling like I’ve failed… and it’s clear that she does not feel “seen” by me also.

    Thank you for your articles, I appreciate them very much.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Lacey, I feel like you’ve described my experience: days that I look back on and ask, “What just happened here?”, and I know my wife would say the same. Your daughter is fortunate to have a mom with good intentions and a desire to do better! It sounds to me like you are balancing an awful lot, and I hope you are finding a place that can support you, as well!

      • Lacey Summers

        🙂 Thank you.

  • ktina1

    I do have someone who truly sees me. Besides Jason, she is the only person I’ve ever met who has treated me as if, if she didn’t have the second with me (every second) her happiness would disappear. She goes out of her way for us (the whole family), takes time in her extremely busy schedule to be there for us whenever we need it, and when she is spending time with me (or us), she is COMPLETELY there. She’s excepted me for everything I am, and am not, and has taught me to be a better person. I’ve never met anyone like her…and she’s only 25. She has also become one of the main reasons that after leaving here, I will fall into a deep depression. Just kidding, well kind of. Great posting again Kelly. You make me cry over my coffee every Saturday morning. Love you bro.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Love you, too, sis!

  • Laura

    This article was very timely for me and much needed. My 19 year old daughter, who just returned home from her first year of college, has said to me many times, “Don’t be a therapist right now, I need you to be my mom.” These words are usually said between sobs and while tears are falling. What she’s really asking for is to be seen, as your article so beautifully describes. I’m so grateful she has the awareness to know what she needs and the ability to ask for it.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Laura, thank you for sharing. Your daughter is also lucky to have a mom who can hear her lament and who is willing to change in order to be responsive to her needs! I hope that it is a healing summer for both of you.

  • marian ghebrial

    This truly touched my heart and resonates to the core, thanks Kelly, Marian Ghebrial

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank YOU for your encouraging words, Marian! I hope you are all well. Still think fondly upon the last time we saw you at Catherine and John’s in Oak Park!

  • MSterzick

    I could write the exact same words as Lacey – I find parenting to be hugely stressful and have a lot of guilt over that. But, this post made me think about how little time it takes for my kids to feel I have “seen” them – just to listen when they share information. I don’t have to jump and run every time they call, but when they really want to engage with me I need to give back – otherwise all I do is boss and scold them all day. I really made an effort this week to look them in the eye and respond when they spoke to me and I felt better at the end of each day – still wiped out and discouraged, but at least I knew I had connected with them for even a few minutes. Thank you, Dr. Flanagan – I gain a lot from your site.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you. And this is so well said. I like how it reflects the importance of listening for the request from our children, and then receiving it and responding, even though it is often draining and difficult. I’m touched by the effort you put in this week; your kids are lucky to have you.

  • Carrie

    For years I have wondered, “What is friendship?” This week I’ve been asking myself what I want in friendship. I want a friend that I can call and share good news with, a friend that I can call when things go wrong, someone I can talk to just because. I’d like that friend to want to talk to me too. I do have a friend like that, but she doesn’t have much space in her life for me. I need someone with space for me. And now you bring up being seen. I was raised that children are to be seen and not heard. The way you describe it, I wasn’t really seen. You’ve given me more food for thought. I teach piano and it is my hope that each child and parent who sits in my studio feels seen by me. I think that they do, but there is always room for growth, eh?
    Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Carrie, thank you for sharing your experience. Yes, there is always room for growth, isn’t there? Ironically, I’m guessing the best way for you to grow in this is to find a place or relationship in which you feel really seen. As you become more familiar with the experience yourself, you will understand better how to give it to others! Blessings on your journey!