Person Standing Alone on Brick Path

Until about a year ago, I never understood the phrase, “I am lonely.” Actually I considered this statement a sign of weakness. I’m sorry for that. I didn’t have a reference point for this feeling until one Saturday morning, while lying on my sofa, this thing came and plopped down on my chest. My heart began to race. I couldn’t control my breathing. “What is this?” I asked. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Get off me. Get off me! I can’t breathe,” I pleaded, but it wouldn’t relent. It wrapped it fingers around my throat pulling me close. When we were face-to-face it whispered, “You are alone.” It writhed with excitement as it watched fear overtake me and then, as quickly as it came, it was gone. I lay there panting from the visitation. I reached for the phone to call someone but didn’t know how to explain what had occurred. You see, men are not as easily allowed to say that we feel lonely as women. Overwhelmed and exhausted, I dosed into a restless sleep.

Since that day, I’ve been asking myself questions about loneliness and doing research to figure out if other people–specifically other men–feel lonely too. I’ve discovered that lots of people feel lonely, even people who are in relationships or have very active social lives. Loneliness isn’t something you can always see. A person spending time with their significant other or friends may not look lonely, but they can absolutely feel so. You see, loneliness has nothing to do with the presence or absence of people. It is instead a condition of feeling disconnected from everyone–especially the people who make up your primary support system.

I discovered a lot of research, done in the United Kingdom (UK), which focused on loneliness among seniors. One statistic from the Campaign to End Loneliness’ Loneliness Research page reports that only “17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbors less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month.” In short, most older adults have very little contact with family or friends. As we age, our social and familial circles shrink. Friends die, and younger family members tend to become preoccupied with their own youthful affairs. Even though this bit of research came out of the UK, I think it’s plausible to say that the statistics are probably similar everywhere. An article titled Lonely Planet: Isolation Increases in the US reports that between 1985 and 2004, the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled to 25%. Young or old, it seems we’re all in the same boat, and it’s affecting us in ways we may not fully understand. Recently, loneliness even been linked to causing or contributing to certain mental and physical health problems including depression and heart disease (see Loneliness Linked to Heart Disease, Stroke).

We live in a time when we are physically closer than we have ever been to each other, but most of us know little about our neighbors, if we even know them at all. In the old days, neighbors might be miles away, but we knew who they were and could depend on them in times of need. Now we live within feet sometimes inches of each other but don’t even know each other’s names. I get it. Through social media, we’re all friends, right? I don’t think so.

Social Media Icons on Smart Phone
Credit: pixabay.com/CC0 Public Domain

Social media is not reality. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time that we can control and present as a picture of happiness and vitality, when in reality, we may be struggling. Ellen DeGeneres made a statement to the effect of ‘No one’s life seems as good as it appears on social media.’ Even I’ve posted pictures where I’m smiling big under bright, blue skies when just a few seconds before I was in tears. Sure some of the moments we post are real, but those moments are not a complete picture of our lives. Social media can be a great resource, but our use of it has become quite ungracious. We are overly attached and in some cases addicted to this stuff. An aspect of success is now determined by the number friends/followers one has or the number of likes or retweets our posts receive. I’ve found myself feeling conflicted when I post something that receives no or low likes or reactions. This is crazy, but perhaps it’s not. Sometimes a like or retweet is all we give each other as a sign or symbol of caring. One day I was talking to a former co-worker. She commented how being on Facebook was painful. She went on to explain that seeing friend’s posts and pictures about their children and spouses was difficult for someone like herself, who is now in her late 40s, is still single and has no children. I attempted to be encouraging, but it was difficult. At that moment, I realized I too had experienced precisely what she was describing–disenchantment due to social media fantasy.

People Waiting in Checkout Line
Credit: David Shankbone, Wikimedia.org

Casual interactions are dying. Just the other day I was thinking how it was a natural occurrence to have a conversation with someone I didn’t know while waiting in the checkout or how common it was to exchange a heart-felt greeting with someone I passed on the street. I’ve always enjoyed these types of interactions because they are low-risk. They don’t usually last long but can be rewarding. Such interaction is less common nowadays. When out and about most of us are engulfed in exchanges with the people inside our phones and when those people are not there, we find it difficult to interact with the people standing next to us. The thing we sometimes forget is that casual interactions can lead to long-term relationships. Sometimes that best friend or lover we’ve been looking for is standing right next to us.

Cartoon Shadow Running Carrying Breifcase
Credit: pixabay.com/CC0 Public Domain

We’re too busy. I am at a stage in life where I think I’m supposed to be dating or married and raising children [chuckle]. This is the status of most of the people I’ve developed intimate friendships, and it’s the natural path that most people follow. I’ve chosen a different path somewhat intentionally and somewhat unintentionally. This has made maintaining social connections with my inner circle difficult. Their lives have different moving parts than my own, which often leaves me being the odd man out. As a result, I often feel isolated from them. However, I’ve learned from most of them that being in a relationship or having children doesn’t eliminate feelings of loneliness and isolation. This is because we need connections with people outside our romantic or family circles. I’ve noticed with my friends that weeks can go by and we don’t have real interactions beyond strings of text messages. Such exchanges are fine, but they don’t provide the same fulfillment as sitting down at a meal together or having a face-to-face conversation. What I’ve realized is that we are all perhaps a bit too busy. It makes us feel good when we can rattle off a list of things we did that day or have planned for the next. It makes us seem accomplished or ambitious, which has some importance, but I think a good portion of the stuff we fill our schedules with can begin to distract us from what we need–connection to each other. What most of us want on our dying day is the people we are close to. Why not design our lives so that we have those people present more regularly? Aren’t they what make life most meaningful?

Admittedly when I began drafting this post, I was upset and planned rant a bit about my own situation but as I read and wrote, I began to see that I have had a hand in my feelings of loneliness and also in the feelings of loneliness experienced by people around me—even if they never mention it. I’m equally as guilty as the next person of spending too much time on social media, being too busy and of avoiding casual interactions so I think it’s time to make some adjustments, which I’ve been making progress at.

Things I’m Doing to Decrease My Own and the Loneliness of Others

Put the Phone Down When Shopping

The goal is to make myself aware and available to interact with the people around me. Sometimes this ends up only being the cashier, but I’ve noticed that some cashiers, usually those who aren’t distracted by their phones, sincerely appreciate not having customers glued to the phone as they check out.

Call Instead of Texting

Sending a text to check on someone that crosses our minds is good but a phone call takes the expression of our care to a level that we all appreciate. Sometimes texts can come across as due diligence (steps to satisfy a requirement) versus a devoted interest in the person’s well-being.

Limit Visits to Social Media Sites

Honestly, we post the same types of things over and over so what exactly are we spending so much time on these sites for anyway? Often times we’re just passing time. I’ve signed out of social media in my Web browsers, and I typically only visit the sites on my mobile device about twice per day. I’ve found myself feeling less stressed and less lonely by not going on social media and that’s definitely been a good thing.

What I Was Listening To

Holding On by Gregory Porter featuring Kem.

Feature Image-Copyright:Dara Tangs

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