How to Defeat the Most Insidious Epidemic of Our Time

Loneliness

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When I Saw Loneliness Sitting in a Restaurant

I remember 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. While munching on fries at a roadside McDonalds, 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, mid-30s, bushy red hair, eyeglasses thick and slightly askew, weak chin, a short sleeve shirt and a clashing tie, big-sad eyes staring into the distance, nibbling on a French fry of his own.

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.” I think he broke my heart because he was a mirror for my own loneliness—a painfully shy kid who felt completely unanchored in the world.

The years have rolled by, and now I’m that man’s age. And I’m a therapist now, instead of a kid. I’ve put down roots in the world. But one thing remains unchanged by time: lonely hearts still rupture me.

The Loneliness Epidemic

As a therapist, I’ve come to believe loneliness is at the heart of human suffering:

It’s the depression convincing us we are alone in the darkness and no one notices.

It’s the haunting fear we are on our own without protection and there is nothing solid 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.”

The world we live in is aching with loneliness, but we are rarely aware of it, because in a loud and crowded world, loneliness has a thousand busy disguises.  

We sit in traffic jams thick as quicksand. We work in offices cramped with a hundred cubicles. We tweet our thoughts to a thousand followers. We instantly upload photos to Facebook, updating friends and family about our every move. We share videos of ourselves on YouTube with the tap of a finger, and within hours we have thousands of viewers. We feel connected—sometimes even too connected—and yet loneliness is spreading like an epidemic.

It’s spreading like damp mold behind seemingly pristine walls.

Our loneliness is growing because it is only eliminated by being seen. It is only relieved by a slow, careful attentiveness and a deep knowing of who we are.

And in a world of traffic jam relationships and friendship by appointment, being really seen has become an antiquated experience.

When I Saw Belonging Sitting in a Restaurant

Last year, 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 do some writing, when 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. I wondered if I was witnessing the fruit of a people able and willing to really see each other. I didn’t have to wonder for long.

You see, 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 patrons 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.

This time the pressure behind my eyes felt like freedom instead of emptiness.

How to Belong and to Become Belonging

Loneliness isn’t the enemy. 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. Because inevitably, when we receive the gift of belonging, we bubble over with the gift and become the gift-giver. Where we once ached to belong, we now ache to become a place of belonging in a crowded-lonely world.

We become a people set ablaze with the ability and the desire to really see our spouses and children and friends and neighbors and every passing stranger.

———

If this post finds you knocking at the door of life, waiting for someone to see you and to let you in, don’t stop knocking. You are worthy of belonging and there are people in the world who want to welcome you. 

Or perhaps someone has taken the time to see you, and you are overflowing with gratitude for the place of belonging they have given you. Let them know. Say thank you. Or share this post with them as a way of saying, “I see you, too; you have a place to belong with me.”

And may we go forward, lighting up the world with our attentiveness, beating back the epidemic of loneliness, one moment of belonging at a time.

———

* This post was adapted from an archived post.

Comments: 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 reactions in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

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Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is tentatively entitled, “What to Do When Our Feelings Are Lying to Us”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

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.

  • Frank Berzau

    A very well written article, I really like the connection you make between loneliness and belonging. There is one aspect of loneliness though, I find really important. Loneliness is one of those core feelings you have to go thru. Because loneliness is a fact. Between you and I, there is – emptiness. Look at the universe, as a metaphor for what I mean. Even though I can see other people (in the sense you mention in your post), even though I can actually feel them – I’m still alone. Wait until you are about to die, you know what I mean. That last step, even if you’re lucky and feel connected, and maybe you family and friends around you to hold you hand. There is no escape from going that step so very alone, it’s beyond anything you can experience in life. Now, if you consider loneliness just as that. A fact. A reality. And something you can’t escape. And when you then stop trying to escape it, just experience it, only then you’ll find that magically loneliness turns into something really deep, really peaceful. You will find there’s an indescribable peace in it, no need to ever end, because in that loneliness you lose all dependencies, all mechanisms to escape it – and ultimately freedom. Only then you’re able to experience true connectedness. Because you don’t have to. When loneliness becomes your friend, you can show who you really are. Because negative responses from others have lost their power. That I call freedom. And the path to it is the deepest, most awkward looking loneliness. In my experience – can’t have one without the other. Or, loneliness is belonging’s best friend and wise advisor.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Frank, This is a blog post of its own, and I like it better than mine. 🙂 It reminds me of something I read somewhere once, I think by Henri Nouwen, saying “alone” is a basic human condition. It can be feared and avoided and thus experienced as “loneliness,” or it can be approached and embraced and thus experienced as “solitude.” Thanks for this reminder.

    • Kristin Hasselblad

      Wow, thank you for sharing, this is wonderful!

  • Warren Aldrich

    You express the human condition so eloquently and poignantly. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Warren. And you are very welcome!

      • Warren Aldrich

        Sure, and I want to add that you do that over and over in your blogs.

        • drkellyflanagan

          Thanks again, Warren!

  • Michele

    I have a list on my computer called, “Heroes who SEE.” It’s a list of people who inspire me with their perspicacity: “penetrating discernment—a clarity of vision or intellect which provides a deep understanding and insight.” I listed Hoke from Driving Miss Daisy; Pollyanna; Miss Mellie from Gone with the Wind; Lottie from Enchanted April … and Jesus. Notice how 4 out of 5 are fiction! But all of them had the ability to see beyond what appeared to be staring them in the face — critical, unkind, complaining, demeaning, demanding, difficult people — and love them anyway. Love them when that love was thrown back; love them even when the beloved was actively betraying them. In fact, love them into changing for the better. That’s who I want to be.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Michele, what a brilliant idea! I hope everyone reads this comment and then investigates those characters!

  • K.M.W.

    Can you recall a time someone really saw you, a time when you were given the gift of belonging and it dispelled your loneliness?

    Twice, once by a stranger. I was sitting outside of a restaurant, waiting dejectedly for someone, when a young father rushed out of the building and over to me. He brushed at my back saying, “I saw a bee land on you from inside.” I thanked him, and he went back to his family. Made me laugh a bit.

    The other time was earlier, when I was still a child. My mother was busy with marketing a drama production, rushing about, making sure everything was running smoothly. I had tagged along. It was winter. We arrived at the theatre, and I was freezing. I stood beside my mom as she talked with the stage manager. The manager noticed that I was shivering, and said “why you’re chilled! Give me your hands.” She proceeded to warm them during the conversation.

    Those are the ones that surprised me, and made me feel just a bit more human.

    My little brother went to the city yesterday, and when he returned to our small town he said that it was strange being in a group of busy people, all of whom seemed to have something to do, almost all of whom were on cell phones. Disconnected, despite their presence in the same mall. So he texted a random person to cope with the strange isolation. xD

    Thank you for this post. 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for this. It highlights how being seen by a “stranger” has a special power to assuage our loneliness. Which means we all have the opportunity to do so for so many people!

  • Jennifer Koski

    Awesome Kelly. Yes, be the one who sees others & our own loneliness abates. Just saw this commercial yesterday, & think it fits well with your post (1.5 minutes): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ae0tzVo8Fw

    • drkellyflanagan

      Wow. Thank you. I just shared this on the Facebook page. Wow.

  • Priti

    Sometimes busyness can also result in loneliness..In a quest to get things done, be online to research or connect on social media, gym, etc we can go through an entire day without really belonging and not even realise it.
    I remember the day I was busy running errands carrying my almost 1 year old. The last stop was the pharmacy. I sat him on the counter top while placing the order. Suddenly he says ‘Mama’, looks me in the eyes and grins and then he touches his face to my face (a face hug). As if to say, hey, I’m here for you even though I cant really be of any help. At that moment, I felt so humbled and loved. He really saw me and I belonged. I must have ignored him the whole time as I was busy trying to finish my tasks at hand. He is almost 2 now and I still remember that day and consciously live every day deliberately choosing to connect with my family and those around me. Stopping everything, looking in the eye even if for a minute or two.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Priti, This is a beautiful story and a powerful reminder. Thank you!

  • Deb

    I was walking near the Shedd Aquarium today watching my kids run around near the lake and a couple I did not know walked by me and the woman paused and said “hi”, I said “hi” and she said “good to see you today”. I knew I didn’t know her. It was weird but nice to hear something like that from a complete stranger. I felt a sense of belonging after that, I didn’t realize exactly what it was that I felt until I read this post tonight. It should be the norm to feel like you belong and not just a time you can TRY to remember.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Agreed, Deb. A world in which that was the norm would be a radically different, and beautiful, place.

  • Rebecca

    I used to work on the ritual staff of a spirituality festival dedicated to love and sacred sexuality, and I had deliberately taken ownership of a space that was non-sexual so that it would be a safe place for anyone to come regardless of their relationship status or sexual orientation. My goal was to make sure that everyone attending, including other staff, felt welcome and seen– I used that very word, and for the same reasons that you use it.

    It was unbelievably rewarding work, but the absolute highest point for me was in, I think, the fourth year. In a ritual centered on inspiration, we were each tasked with helping visitors to our space connect with their muse. My co-facilitator and I decided that we wanted each visitor to experience themselves as their own muse. In order to do that, I held up a mirror to each visitor and asked them to see themselves as I saw them, then lavished them with praise. What I said was unique to each person; it was easy when it was someone I knew or at least knew things about, but when it was someone I didn’t personally know, I had to just trust that whatever came to me would be the right thing to say. At the heart of all of it was “you matter”. For almost four hours without a break I stood and talked to dozens of people– I didn’t even count, but they just kept coming. I’ve never been in such a pure flow state.

    What an honor and a gift it was to look into each of those people’s eyes and see what it looks like when someone realizes they have been seen. It was profoundly moving. Some people flickered their eyes around, smiling shyly and having no idea how to receive that kind of focused attention. Some were full of joy. Some were very quiet, even stoic, and just nodded thanks. Many wanted to give me something in return– compliments or a hug. Some got very emotional, even breaking down in tears.

    I’ve always been outgoing, the type to make eye contact and chat with total strangers, but since then I’ve looked for opportunities to do that kind of praising connection in smaller, informal ways. Nothing breaks my heart so much as loneliness and I feel like a big part of my reason for being here in this life is to do something about it. I’m glad to see someone else– you– write so eloquently about this and with a point of view that resonates so deeply with mine.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Rebecca, grab a mirror and give that “writes eloquently” compliment again, okay? : ) This is beautiful. I love your story and all of these stories. I hope others will continue to share here!

  • Vanz

    Having to work away from my country is beyond loneliness. My first month here was miserable then after weeks of constantly finding the will to survive, I was fine, beyond fine. But now, I am going back to where I started. Depression drains the life out of me. Then I saw this.

    For weeks, I always find my quiet time (from you blog also) by walking going home and for the short period of time here abroad, I was used to eating alone. at home or outside. Twice I saw a man eating be himself in the street. I was happy that time but a wind of loneliness struck my heart. As you said,

    “I think he broke my heart because he was a mirror for my own loneliness.”

    Eating alone has a huge impact for me. That’s why when I get back to my country and serve in our community of young people called Youth for Christ, in a youth camp I will challenge everyone that in every meal time be sure no one will eat alone. “One moment of belonging at a time.”

    Thank you Dr. Kelly for helping me build my life again.