Dear Dr. Dan: In your last column, you mentioned that loneliness is about missing something. Despite feeling loved by others, I find myself pretty lonely. Maybe it’s because I work about half time on the computer at home. Or because the other half of my day is spent with my 15-month-old daughter, who is wonderful but doesn’t provide much social interaction.
I am in my 40s and have no siblings. I lost both of my parents to cancer more than 10 years ago. So holidays spent even with people I love make me sad. While working and providing child care alone seem like situations I can change, the sadness around my lack of extended family seems as if it’s more of a permanent condition. What to do?
Dear Anne: Loneliness is epidemic in our culture. It contributes to divorce, isolation, prejudice and various compulsive behaviors, including overwork.
In his book Shades of Loneliness, sociologist Richard Stivers argues that our loneliness comes from living in an increasingly technological world where we relate more to machines than to people. This would confirm your theory about feeling isolated at the computer. But loneliness can be caused by many other things, including illness, disability, loss of a loved one, and change of environment (many college freshmen complain of loneliness). What they all share is a longing for human connection.
You rightly suggest that your loneliness is a form of chronic grief from the loss of your parents. Your letter also implies that your loneliness is a painful condition that should be remedied.
But if you had the option to feel less sad during holidays, would you want to? There is something about the sadness that helps you feel connected to your parents. Sadness doesn’t feel good, but that doesn’t mean it is a problem.
As a species, we have a primordial drive to be part of a community. For most, that begins with family. For better or worse, our original family gives us our first sense of who we are. And now you are an orphan. No one can appreciate the relationship you had with your parents and what that loss means to you. But many adults sometimes feel alone, different from the larger world, and longing for what we once had. If you look around, you will see that almost everyone you speak with is a fellow orphan!
Which gets us to what can be done. Nothing can be done about your orphanhood or the sadness and loneliness that sometimes accompany it.
But most books about loneliness have a spiritual dimension. This makes sense because loneliness is an ache for contact, to feel a part of something. An intimate relationship with a loving God can help diminish one’s sense of aloneness. But even without the religious element, feeling connected to the larger world can do the same thing. If you could pay close attention to the world’s natural beauty around you, eventually you would begin to see yourself as part of that world. You would understand that every time you inhale, much of the oxygen comes from the foliage around you, and with each exhalation, you are feeding the same foliage. And perhaps you could expand your sense of belonging to your fellow orphans. Understand that what drives much of their behavior is that same ache that you feel during holidays.
And don’t worry about the sadness. Happiness feels better, but sadness has a way of opening us up to one another.