Friday, January 14, 2011

Pondering Loneliness

I recently read Emily White's memoir, "Lonely." Her book was interesting, but definitely not a quick read. White explores loneliness from the perspective of her own experience, relates experiences from other lonely persons, and also cites extensively from research (and I confess, some of the research was a bit of a slog).

In today's world, we understand and accept depression. We know how to talk about it, and we sort of know how to treat it. Loneliness, on the other hand, is not spoken of, or, if it does come up, is brushed aside. White's goal, I think, is parity for loneliness: a societal understanding of the problem, a willingness to discuss instead of dismissing it. She writes
Studies suggest that close to 10 percent of North Americans struggle with persistent loneliness, but we don't want to think of what life is like for these millions of people. We don't want to imagine what it's like to feel lonely day after day and month after month. We don't want to dwell on the circumstances of a life marked by strong feelings of isolation, and by long stretches of aloneness. Telling ourselves that loneliness is just depression is a way of closing the door on the state. It means we don't have to hear from the lonely, we don't have to understand what their lives are like. We can say, "You were just depressed," and in this way completely shut out what the lonely might be trying to say.  (Page 30)
My mother once told me that her mother, my Nanny, felt she had no friends. Even so, my mother remembered that when Nanny died, so many people spoke of how much she meant to them. How could all those people have considered her a friend, and yet she felt alone? I thought of this when I read Adam's experience:
"I had a really interesting conversation last night," says Adam, the illustrator from Rhode Island, who was trying to explain his sense of social relations as too glancing and thin. "A friend asked why I wasn't coming to the gay running group anymore, and why I wasn't doing this and that, and I said, 'You know, I go to these things, and when I'm there, people pat me on the back and say, "Adam, it's so great to see you." But I don't know what it is. It doesn't feel like anybody, when I'm not there, is saying, "Where's Adam?"' And I was kind of struggling for words to describe it, and my friend said, 'Nothing sticks.' And I said, 'Yes, that's it exactly.' Nothing sticks."  (Page 81)
All these people were friendly with Nanny, probably even thought they were close friends, and yet for her, it didn't "stick." How can we help someone for whom friendship doesn't stick? How can we befriend them in a way that they can find believable?

Here's another incident that made me think of Mom & Nanny:
"At home the phone doesn't stop ringing," says Katherine, a thirty-year-old policy analyst from Nova Scotia. "My mother's always talking to someone or another." Comparing her mother's gregariousness to her own lack of a social circle, Katherine adds, with a bit of a laugh, "I was thinking, 'My mom has way more friends than I do.' But then we had this chat one night, and she said, 'I don't feel like I really have any real friends. People call, but they're just calling to get the gossip.' So my mom feels lonely too." (Page 103)
Recently, I was talking with a friend about another woman, who has been struggling with personal issues, and who lamented that she is lonely. My friend conjectured, and I agreed, that "she needs to make an effort to get to know people."

Things I read in White's book made me regret that judgment. For instance:
The notion that a life might feel chronically underpopulated, or that existing relationships might feel too loose and inconsequential, is something that many lonely people insist others fail to understand. "You don't know it unless you've been there," says James, the Quebec-based engineer, who's suffered from loneliness for over ten years. "I mean, most people define loneliness as, 'Oh, gosh. I haven't seen my boyfriend or girlfriend in a week, and I'm lonely, and I'm sitting here waiting for the phone to ring.' That's not what a long-term situation is. You can be functioning quite normally in society and still be unbearably lonely." The lack of awareness about loneliness means that trying to raise the issue with a health-care provider can lead exactly nowhere. "I've mentioned it to my doctor," says James, "and he's kind of brushed it off, saying, 'You should get out more. It will do you good.' Trying to explain it to him - it doesn't register." (Page 81)
Or this:
What seemed to bother lonely people was not that they lacked social skills, but rather that they had good skills but found themselves cut off from using them. Presented with social opportunities - opportunities they knew they needed in order to fend off their loneliness - they found themselves retreating, and becoming less likely to accept invitations or join group outings.

"There'll be a mixer announced for after work," says Katherine, the Nova Scotia policy analyst. "And I'll think to myself the whole day, 'I should go to this, I should go to this, I should really go and meet some poeple.' And then I don't go, because I feel weird about it." Katherine stresses that she knows how to socialize - on the phone, she's funny and cheery - but says that she's become inhibited, and more likely to withdraw than spend time with others. (Page 151)
Or this:
"[People giving advice] just say, 'Try to go out and meet new people,'" notes Ray, the fundraiser from Philadelphia, who's told a few family members about his loneliness. "And I've never really understood how that's exactly done, I guess," he adds with a quiet laugh. "It's almost like saying, 'Well, if you feel like playing baseball, why don't you go and join the major leagues?' It just seems like such a huge thing to do."

"It doesn't really get to the heart of the problem of being lonely," agrees Frances, the physiotherapist from Missouri, who told her mother about being lonely. "Her reaction was 'Well, if you just go out and meet some people, you'll be fine.' But it's not that you don't know people, it's that you don't feel connected to them." (Page 259)
How can I draw people out, encourage them to participate, help them to feel connected, and not to feel “weird?”
The solution, Starkey [a former social worker in northern England] emphasizes, is not to walk away, but to take active measures to try to help the lonely person. "It's a human right," says Starkey, passionately, referring to a sense of belonging. "And I think it should be a full society issue. This is an issue for everyone." (Page 277)
White concludes
I thought I could somehow subdue the state [of loneliness] myself. But I couldn't. I can't. What I need is the comfort that can be provided by someone else. I'm not, despite adequate skill or powerful desire, able to write an end to my own loneliness story. This ending has to come from outside, from someone else, from someone who takes me by the hand and leads me away from the state, away from the word, away from the feeling that's been mine for so long. (Page 332)
What to do? What active measures should I take? How do I take someone by the hand and lead them? What will help someone to find a sense of belonging?

For starters, I think I can be aware. I can invite and reach out to others, try to involve them, call them when I've missed them at a gathering. I can be patiently non-judgmental.

And because White’s book made me ponder these things, I'm glad I read it.


  1. I feel that these people say they have social skills but do they have the right ones? I would consider that my mom is a lonely person. She would love to have more friends but she lacks social skills that I think are important and make a lasting relationship. She is easily offended and no one would know that because she only tells her family. She also assumes things about people. "Oh, they don't ask us to do anything because they make more money then we do." My sister and I would love to help her but we know she would take offense and just feel bad about herself.
    I guess what would be interesting is to talk to these peoples families about the people that feel lonely and maybe there is other reasons. I also feel that it really helps being in the church. There is always an activity but if they need someone to reach out to them and bring them each time and they rely on someone else for all of that it puts a strain on that relationship because the person doing the helping feels that they need to make sure they are having a good time. It would almost make sense to have a group of people so that it was rotated as to who made sure they came.

    But I don't feel like I am very good at understanding things like this. Derek reminds me that their is more to it than I think. I could never do what he does.

  2. Robin, very nice post. This quotation rang true for me: "It's almost like saying, 'Well, if you feel like playing baseball, why don't you go and join the major leagues?' It just seems like such a huge thing to do."

    I find I can be social "by assignment" if I have a defined role to play, but otherwise I'm not so good at it. It's just too hard, and too risky.

  3. I'm curious how you came to read this book. Thanks for making me aware of it. I'm going to add it to my list.

    Can you imagine the social complications of assigning this book as the reading in a book group?

  4. Alicia, thanks for those thoughts. I think there is a certain amount of balance called for, between offering support to someone and trying to live their life for them. I always hope for insight to guide in this effort, but it isn't easy, is it?

    David, I have to ask: are you my brother or my nephew?!? (so confusing...) I don't remember where I heard about this book - I read a review somewhere, and thought it looked interesting. I think it could lead to a rather lively book discussion, although if there were self-described lonely persons present, it would be... yes, complicated.