“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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.