Almost 50% of adults in the United States struggle with loneliness. I believe when we talk about loneliness it loses some of its power. I also believe it helps when we put real names and faces with real examples of loneliness. Many thanks to Sarah Hudspeth for participating in the Hope for the Lonely On the Record Q&A.
Sarah is a writer, teacher, and data-enthusiast who has left the math classroom in pursuit of data science. Find her blogging on LinkedIn and some of her fiction online. She lives north of San Francisco with her family, lab mix, and a Meyer lemon tree.
1. How do you define loneliness?
Mel Robbins-- in one of her Mindset Reset videos that I found on LinkedIn-- said loneliness is a signal your body sends when you desire connection with others; much like pangs of hunger and thirst are signals your body sends when we are in need of food or water.
I think loneliness is a desire for connection in an absence of connected-ness. It's also somehow tied up in belonging and a desire to belong, but it's a nuanced connection that I'm not sure how to tease out.
2. What are some of your loneliness triggers?
Boredom. My fear of boredom can also trigger loneliness. An inability to connect, too, triggers a feeling of being separate, different, outside...especially when I'm unable to communicate, say in a foreign country and I don't have the language skills. Though the ability of humans to connect despite language and culture barriers is one of great beauties of the world.
3. Over the course of your life, when have you felt the loneliest?
I spent a summer in Rome care-taking for a seven year who was my only real companion. My shyness and an inability to speak the language well (and being a sheltered 18 year old) made it hard for me to make friends and find a place in the city. I wandered the streets by myself, wondering how people make friends, seeing movies by myself in Italian on days off, and smiling at strangers because I didn't know what else to do. There was a deep sense of being alone in the midst of a crowd, experiencing the majesty of the ancient world--and there was no one else who could share that wonder with me. There was a desire to connect--but no real way for me, in my immaturity, to build.
I think I also felt lonely in 8th grade when I switched from a small private school to a large public school---and I did not know how to navigate middle school social circles. I didn't know where I fit in and belonged and it made it hard for me to talk (even to people I had been friends with during the summer) so I just did not talk a lot that year and that was lonely. I felt like a blob in chair all year long, unable to "be" and put myself out there, so retreated into my head--and just tried to survive that year.
I also had kids "young" for my peer group and that at times felt lonely Moms were older and were at different life stages (and sometimes soooo condescending) that I often felt connections were forced or off and I didn't know how to navigate my desires and others' expectations. I had different needs and wants out of motherhood than others and I often felt outside the norm.
That said, I have rarely felt lonely after kids. I don't know if it's that motherly connection with them that centers me and helps me find my place or know where I belong, but I find myself craving solitude after all the demands of mothering. It might also be that after ten years in the classroom, as a teacher, making connections all day with students, parents, and colleagues, that I'm over connection and really need to regain some sense of self. I definitely think my desire to be a teacher came from a desire to make sure no child had a middle school experience like mine.
4. How do you define hope?
Hope is being certain of something unseen. It's also a knowing and belonging of what is yet to be (or to be understood). I've been exploring Buddhism and according to my readings, the path to enlightenment is a cessation of all sorts of cravings (thirsts) and desires. The knowledge and awareness of "what really is" is 'nirvana'...So how does hope play in? It may be the knowledge that peace (connectedness, belonging) is there along the path.It is. Hope is the raft (another one of Buddha's tropes) that gets us to a wider understanding of humanity and "what we really want"...which is also sometimes unlearning "wanting" and developing ways that lead to more "knowing", if knowing is defined as an awareness of what is.
5. What gives you hope in your loneliness?
Well if I am trying to broaden my awareness and see reality as it really is (instead of through layers of self and ego) I can reach out in my loneliness and find connection and belonging in the present moment. Just connecting to my breathing--a common meditation practice-- fills me with a sense of peace and awareness of the moment that centers me in a way that I've found connects me to something deeper...that helps me see beyond feelings and desires, towards truth. Often these moments of truth are about what it means to be human, what is compassion, what is grace (for myself, for others, for enemies) and that we are connected deeply in this life to all sorts of things (another major tenet of Buddhism--which is so interesting to learn about as a practicing Christian).
I've also prayed some Novenas recently (a Catholic spiritual practice) and there's something to say the same prayer over and over and over again that helps me dig deeper spiritually that, again, connects me to deeper truths. The knowledge that so many others pray the same prayers, albeit, with their own desires and longing, also builds a sense of connection to the broader world that makes me feel anything but alone. Even though I am usually praying alone, I really don't feel like I'm praying alone. I very much feel connected to others of faith, praying in faith, and hoping in faith.
And I also really like gardening. Connecting with nature is very fulfilling for me. Again, it's a theme on the connected-ness of all things. There's a deep sense of connection when I care for plants, for my dog, for my family, and for others in my community. There's a posture of humility that I like to reflect on, that somehow also alleviates loneliness. It may be whenever I 'think less' of my 'self', as an individual entity, and more of a 'being' that has so many connections to all sorts of other entities and forces, that I also lessen my sense of loneliness. Yoga has helped in that regard. The irony of learning how to connect with my physical self before connecting with others is counter-intuitive: Yes, being alone actually does help me to not be alone. Knowing 'the self" does make a huge difference in learning how to connect with others. There is so much to learn from being lonely!!