When I was only four years old my family, including aunts, uncles, and cousins, went on a vacation to Mesa Verde National Park. We found a short trail that took us to a picnic area surrounded by the beautiful trees of the forest. It was a perfect place. It was isolated and no other people were around. After enjoying each other’s company for an hour or so it was time to clean up, walk down to the car, and get to the next adventure. My cousin Bruce was several years older than I was. As everyone was packing up, he decided to run to the restroom adjacent to the picnic area. I followed him as young boys do with older boys. I quietly sat outside the restroom waiting for him to come back out. I waited…and waited. Everyone had started down the trail, and there I sat alone. Somehow Bruce had left the restroom without me seeing him and I had been left behind.
I started down the trail to find my family and it quickly ended. I had taken the wrong path. I retraced my steps back to the picnic area and still there was no one there, and now I couldn’t find the trail I needed to follow to find my family. At the age of four one is not well-trained in the appropriate response to being lost. Rather than just sit there and wait until someone finally realized I was gone. I panicked and started running into the forest, trying to find the trail. I ran and I ran for what eventually became hours. I was lost in a National Park and now was nowhere near where I originally was lost.
So now it became the story of the day. A little boy was lost in the forest and the search was on, complete with forest rangers, volunteers, and distraught family members. One thing to note is how my family must have felt. Just three years earlier my cousin was on a camping trip with his boy scout troop in Zion’s National Park in southern Utah and was killed in a flash flood. They never found his body. Now I was lost in a national park. I can only imagine the fear that my family must have endured when I was lost.
To this day I can still see the Mesa Verde trees in my mind and feel my heart race with fear as if it happened just yesterday. After running for hours, I stumbled on to a paved road. At least I had the good sense to start walking on that road rather than continue in the trees. I was crying and had been crying for some time, when I heard a car coming. I remember specifically thinking, “should I keep crying and hopefully the car will stop? But I’m a big boy, and big boys don’t cry.” It was 1966 and apparently boys of that era got the foolish message at a very young age that they aren’t supposed to cry. I got over that in a hurry and I decided to cry and cry hard! The car stopped.
I was rescued.
There are times in our life when we feel lost and forgotten. We feel alone. We feel lonely. It happens to us all. The key will depend on how we respond to the forest of life, if you will. We can feel sorry for ourselves and stay in the trees, or we can take steps to help ourselves and get rescued.
Like you, I have had some tremendous challenges in life. I was raised in a home with lots of drugs and alcohol abuse, was a frequent caregiver to a beautiful wife who suffered for many years until her death, leaving me widowed at thirty-four years old, and a single parent with three daughters under eight. I had a baby pass away at birth, had a home burn down, survived a devastating divorce, and had a once successful company go out of business leading to professional and personal bankruptcy. But the thing that has been the greatest struggle for me, even more than this list of challenges, has been the years I have spent alone that have led to significant loneliness.
After my wife passed away, I was a single parent for four years. I remarried to a good woman that was not up for the tremendous burden such a family put upon her and we ultimately divorced. Since that time, I have remained single. I am of the belief that life is meant to be lived in pairs. Being alone has felt very unnatural to me, though that has been my circumstances for many years now. This state of being has led me to some conclusions on dealing with loneliness. They are:
- Being alone is not the same as being lonely.
- Likewise, being with someone doesn’t negate the possibility of being lonely. In fact, I believe the most painful time of loneliness is when you are surrounded by people.
- Being lonely isn’t the same as being depressed, though they often co-exist.
- Being lonely can lead to bad decisions, particularly in the area of relationships.
- Being lonely on occasion is natural, being lonely consistently is not.
First, being alone is not the same as being lonely. Many people, myself included, must have periods of time to recharge and reenergize their souls. This is done often times by being alone. Ask any single mother, or father for that matter, what they would love most of all, and they are likely to say, “an hour just to myself.” Loneliness isn’t being alone, it is the absence of connection emotionally, physically and spiritually to another person or persons.
Now, if the definition of loneliness is the absence of connection to another person, that can happen to any of us, even if a person is in the room with us. When someone is chronically lonely there can be a spiraling effect into a dark place called depression. Depression can be devasting and deadly. Most often, I believe, if depression is a frequent or ongoing condition, the only way out is to get help. Help can come from a therapist, friend, or partner. The challenge may be in identifying the source of the depression and rectifying it, keeping in mind that it is a chemical imbalance and not necessarily situational. Depression is not a natural state of mind, it is an illness that needs attention. Don’t confuse depression as a natural side-effect to being lonely. Sadness, yes; unhappiness, yes; depression, no!
Being lonely can lead to bad decisions. Ugh! Have you ever gone back to an ex-lover? Rarely has that been a good idea. How about met someone new and shared too much, too soon. That intimacy, whether its physical or not, can overwhelm a new relationship. I am a big believer in The Five Love Languages. The premise behind that is that we all have one or two methods of communication that resonate with us. They are: physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, and receiving gifts. My love languages are physical touch and quality time. The quickest cure for my loneliness is when another person communicates to me with physical touch and/or quality time. The bad decision comes when I let just anyone into my space who provides physical touch or quality time, just because it eliminates the loneliness. I’ve learned that loneliness can quickly be replaced by misery, if not with the right person. A friend of mine who had been alone for much of his life once told me, “I have had lots of lonely nights but no miserable ones.” I think he has a point. Be careful with the decision you make when you are feeling lonely.
So, I’ve come up with some solutions that help me feel joy and happiness, rather than sadness related to loneliness. It works all the time and I encourage you to make them part of resolving your feelings of loneliness. There is nothing unique or magical about these things, but they freaking work, so just do them.
- Engage in exercise of a physical activity. I love to hike or go to the gym. That gets me out and energized. In Utah, where I live, it is a four seasons state. I am a three-season guy. I don’t like winter and if I am not careful I can quickly become a recluse during the winter months. It takes a genuine effort for me to be out and about during the winter. I do it anyway and you should too.
- Service to others. Looking to heal and serve others is simply the quickest and easiest way to shed your own loneliness. Two things happen when you serve others. First, you recognize that many other people are in a far worse state than you. This shouldn’t make you feel good, but it does give you some perspective as to the state of your life, which is rarely as bad as you think. Second, it gets your mind off of your pain and helps heal another. There is divinity in serving and you will find peace and love there.
- Show gratitude. I have found that feeling of good and bad cannot co-exist at the same time. You can’t love and hate simultaneously. You can shift back and forth quickly, but you can’t feel both simultaneously. You can’t feel thankful and bitter simultaneously. You can’t feel peace and anxiety at the same moment. By taking control of your feelings, you can take control of your loneliness. For me, feeling grateful and mentally reviewing the things I am most grateful for helps me control my emotions. I’m able to mitigate loneliness because I’m busy feeling the positive, beautiful feeling of gratitude.
- Engage in one of your passions. The things you are passionate about are the fingerprints of God on your soul. Those mix of things you are most passionate about, that are unique to you. I am not talking about physical passion here, though I guess that could do the trick on occasion as well. No, what I’m talking about are the things you think about or participate in that help you feel true joy. Your passions are so important I dedicated an entire chapter to the topic in my book Bounce Back: Finding Joy During Times of Adversity. For me it is picking up my guitar and just playing. Another one, is painting a new piece of art. Even if I can’t literally participate in that activity, just thinking about it causes my body to release the “feel good” chemicals in my brain. Unfortunately, there are many of us who don’t even remember what we are passionate about. We have become so disconnected from our true joy centers that we “don’t have anything we’re passionate about.” If you are struggling to find what you are passionate about, find a quiet moment, and just visualize some of the best moments of your life. Write down, those moments and what you were doing. That’s a start.
Loneliness…it is truly one of the great challenges of life. However, never in the history of time have we been more equipped to mitigate those painful feelings. There are many methods, groups and opportunities for us to attach to that help us engage in activities that minimize or eliminate loneliness. You will note that nowhere in the above list of activities to engage in did I mention Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or any of the innumerable list of social apps at our fingertips. I actually think social media tools have a real place in our social involvement with others. However, I think it is a red herring when it comes to resolving feelings of loneliness. People think that participating in social media is…social. It isn’t! In fact, I think it erroneously takes away from truly socializing. That being the case then, it actually can leave us more lonely and feeling a loss in our lives. It doesn’t take long to validate my beliefs on the negative effect of social media. Have you ever been in a room with several people and looked around and all of them are on their phones rather than talking to each other? I rest my case!
As with nearly all things, to minimize our feelings of loneliness it does require some effort on our part. It may require us to get out of our comfort zone. It may require us to put on coat and go out in the cold winter weather. It may require us to search for opportunities to serve, to love, to be grateful, to connect emotionally with others. If loneliness does cause us to do those things, then it actually has been a good thing, as the world will be a more loving, kinder, healthier place in the end.