I am not a lonely person. I attribute this fact to two main things: my relationship with my parents, and my introversion. Don’t get me wrong – I have been lonely in my life, most recently when I lived overseas. It’s not easy to blend into another culture, to feel rooted as you do in your own. Even with the friends I had abroad, I know I was lonely and that may have spun me into mania. Or at least contributed to it. So I know what an impact loneliness can have on a person.
In her article, “The Surprising Effects of Loneliness on Health” (NY Times), Jane Brody lists some of those (not too surprising to me) negatives on a body: rising levels of stress hormones and inflammation which can lead to heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, and in the worst cases, suicide. Other recent research has shown that older people are susceptible to loneliness, but this article’s research says that loneliness actually peaks in adolescence and young adults and then later in the elderly. This finding makes sense to me. I remember intense loneliness when I was young. I remember an emptiness in the pit of my stomach that I have always called “the futility of life feeling”, but now know might have been loneliness.
I remember the summer after my first year in college. I spent it working for an office at Earlham, and the first few days left me bereft. I worked all day, and then would come home to a kind of nothingness. I remember bursting into tears over a plate of spaghetti in front of one of my housemates. Jeff ran out of the room, and I thought to myself, “Great. Now I’ve scared away one of my few human connections.” But Jeff came back, all apologetic because he had had a mouthful of mouthwash and couldn’t talk to me until he spit it out. He was kind, and gradually I got used to the work-to-home phenomenon and found some sort of purpose in my life. But I think that’s hard for a lot of people – filling our lives with purpose. Especially for young people just getting out of college. That transition from intense socialization at school to workaday life is hard. Our society seems to take this rite of passage for granted. Society assumes it will be smooth and natural when in fact there is nothing smooth and natural about it.
I know some people will protest – having few social interactions doesn’t automatically connote loneliness. I agree. Some people need others less. As it states in the article, “Social isolation denotes few social connections or interactions, whereas loneliness involves the subjective perception of isolation – the discrepancy between one’s desired and actual level of social connection.”
To some extent, my introversion protects me from loneliness. I need time on my own – to process, to think, to imagine, to create. Sometimes I am my own best company. I need people, but not all the time. I find I have less and less tolerance for people who take up a lot of cosmic space. In her book Wild Mind, writer Natalie Goldberg confesses to her greatest fear – loneliness. “I am lonely, and I suffer,” she says. THAT is your greatest fear? I shout into the book. But I know our individual fears can seem silly or mundane to others.
Brody’s article also has researchers state that “. . .the most lonely individuals are married, live with others, and are not clinically depressed.” I believe that. Solid human connection doesn’t happen automatically, even in close personal relationships. That’s another thing society seems to take for granted. Marriage, children, all the trappings of the American Dream, are supposed to make us feel better, but they don’t always. As David Byrne sings in the Talking Head song “Once in a Lifetime”, “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house/ with a beautiful wife / and you may ask yourself well/ How did I get here?”
I don’t have a spouse. I don’t have children. The beautiful house I live in doesn’t belong to me. But still, I am grateful for my parents. As cheesy as it may sound, their love is the solidity my life is built on. Unlike some children, I’ve never, ever doubted their love. Hopefully they don’t doubt mine. And this is huge. They have loved me enough, while I think some people’s problems may stem from an early lack of love. I know I’m not saying anything revolutionary here, but again, society takes for granted the love between children and parents. Sadly, it’s not always there.
I wonder about that childhood pit in my stomach – as if my soul had holes in it like Swiss cheese. I wonder if it will return with the death of my parents. I wonder if I’ll be lonely then. Most probably. But I know what I’m going to do. I’ll get a dog.