Loneliness: A State of Mind
I preface important things.
I always have. If something I need to say is difficult to say, or it’s really personal or important, I tend to qualify it a lot. It’s my way of stalling. I know something has to be done, or said, but I don’t want to do it, or say it, so I think up excuses that I pretend validate or excuse whatever it is that has to be done or said. Hence, I feel the need to preface this entire blog post. It needs to be written, because I need to acknowledge it, and there’s that whole thing about how I promised myself that I would write whatever I needed to write here regardless of how it sounded or who might read it. The subject is bothering me, so I have to do it. It may not sound or read pretty. I’m quite sure there will, as always, be grammatical errors because I’m less worried about them than I usually am at the moment. So, just keep in mind that I stubbornly insist on looking at this blog as a personal diary and that writing is my morphine: it is how I heal. First, I think it. Then, I write it. Finally, I’m free.
The other night, Pretty Woman came on the television just as I happened to turn the thing on. Now, I’ve seen this movie lots and lots of times before. It’s in the same box as Beaches and Steel Magnolias and Ghost: I still quote these movies in everyday life. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve said: “It’s TIME” as Julia Roberts did in Steel Magnolias or “Hey! Get off my bench.” These movies have acted as the soundtrack to my life. Pretty Woman falls in the same category. I’ve watched it lots. But it’s been a long time since I sat through the entire movie. A very long time. As I did the other night, immense tenderness filled my heart and soul. I laughed. I cried. I fell in love with Richard Gere all over again. But, this time, for even more reasons. This time, you see, what struck me hard was the subtle but definitely present theme of loneliness.
I’ll be really honest here. I know that there are lots of people in this world that are surrounded by open hatred: I’m not one of them. There are a few notable exceptions but, generally, the people I’m surrounded by seem to like me okay. I mean, I don’t have people who seem out to get me. Most of the people in my little world are actually quite nice. Tomorrow is Thankful Tuesday and I will be writing a post about a bunch of these very nice people who share my world. I’m also not really very shy. I speak in public. I teach. But, even more than that, I’m not afraid to chase my dreams. I will call the manager of any book store I find and ask for a meeting whose entire purpose is for me to pitch my book. I’ve been interviewed by the papers. I’ve read my books out loud to others, which is nerve racking. In other words, I’m not very shy, and I’m not afraid of people. Actually, the funny thing is, I kind of like the whole lot of them.
Very, very few people really know who I am. Very, very few have ever even genuinely attempted to get to know me. They’re happy I teach, or speak, for them. They’re happy to let me watch their wonderful children, because they know I genuinely love little ones. I’m good at being cheerful, I’m good at smiling. And I’m exceptionally talented at withdrawing into hibernation, hiding behind a wall of isolation. I can be in the middle of a crowded room and feel terribly alone. I watch others. I see how graceful they appear, how confident, and suddenly I feel like an overgrown, incompetent, clumsy kid. I’ve learned how to cover those awful feelings of insecurity with a tilt of the chin and an overbright smile. Some hide behind silence. Some try to be invisible. I hide behind a mask of confidence. I listen, I smile… and I divert personal questions with as evasive a reply as I can get away with. I surround myself with children who don’t know to ask anything beyond: “Can you read one more book?”
If I’m gutsy honest, it’s because I’m terrified of rejection. I’m afraid of people learning about the “real me” and running for the hills. I’m afraid of not being funny enough, or pretty enough, or smart enough. I’m afraid of not being enough. So I think up reasons to avoid lunches. I use kids as a shield to ward off potential friends. I don’t do it deliberately, but I find myself doing it nonetheless. I’d rather be alone than be rejected. Did you know that loneliness is not necessarily the state of being alone but, rather, it’s the perception of being alone. This is very interesting to me. It’s perceiving that I’m alone that counts. I wonder… what makes that perception? When I’m in a room full of other people, what makes me think I’m alone? Is it that, from all I can gather about their lives, the other women seem to have it more together than me? Most of them are married—that means someone found them worthy enough, and pretty enough, despite whatever flaws they might have, to actually marry. That makes me question myself.
Are my flaws really that awful? Am I really that difficult to love? Am I really that broken? People sing my praises actually a lot. But what they’re praising is my writing abilities, or my teaching skills, or my energy levels: these are things that, given enough incentive and work, anyone can do. The praises aren’t directed toward my character; they aren’t directed towards me. Being a good writer doesn’t make one a good person. Being a good teacher doesn’t make one a passionate woman. You see… the thing is…. it’s not really that we want to be around people. We’re surrounded by people all day every day. What we want is to be understood and accepted unconditionally. At least, I do. If the desire to be wanted was enough, I’d have been married a long time ago. If the desire to have a couple of close girlfriends was enough, I’d have had them in high school and in college and now. If the desire for total healing was enough, I’d be a lot stronger. But wanting something isn’t enough. God’s grace can break any barriers that might exist, but I have to be willing to let it happen. The truth is… as much as I want connections with others, as much as I long and crave for substantial and personal relationships, I fear rejection more. I fear being walked away even one more time. I fear putting everything I’ve got on the line only to be deemed too difficult, or too broken, or not enough. I fear that more than I want the connection—if the connection is going to result in the feeling of my heart being broken, what’s the point? Is there one? To have the experience? Is a beautiful experience worth eventual rejection? Is it, really?
I saw a picture the other day of this older couple. The man had one a shirt that said “Together 19” and the woman had a shirt that read “Since 45.” Together since 1945. I wanted to say, “how?” You’re both people. You’re both full of flaws and childhood scars and a whole host of behaviors and experiences that probably tested the other’s limits. It’s been my experience that someone loves the other one more, or less. Is it really possible to find someone that loves you as much as you love him? Enough to fight your way through to peace and the sure knowledge that, come what may, you’ll have each other in the end? What does it take? How much do I have to change? How much more confident do I have to become? How much more vulnerable do I need to make myself? How many times have I fell into a fitful sleep only to wake an hour later crying for no apparent reason, and longing for a friend to call or a reassuring hug?
The Rodeo drive shopping scene in Pretty Woman was so touching because, at first, money made her feel powerful and normal. But it only took a couple sentences from the store employees to make her feel unworthy. She was comfortable and confident at making men feel physically good, but she didn’t know what to do when he wanted something more from her, or when she felt as beautiful on the inside as she looked on the outside. Confidence allowed her to believe that there was more than what she was doing. A week long connection with someone was enough to convince her that the fairy tale, the happily ever after, might be possible after all. She needed to feel pretty. She needed to feel special. She needed to feel understood. She needed to matter to someone.
We all do.
Loneliness is a vicious cycle that chips away at our self-esteem, which prevents us from even trying to form meaningful relationships. The truth, though, is that, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done, we’re all people. Regardless of how raw our scars or how high our walls, our hearts can be reached with as little as one meaningful conversation or one answered need. The stranger at the gas station is capable of transforming my life because my heart hungers for meaningful human connection. The reader who tells me she knows all about “the little girl” too rubs a healing salve to my heart because it hurts to feel like an alien when the desire to be understood is innate. All it would take is for someone to tell me it’s time now to –not– be strong for me to completely fall apart, because the need to be held, protected and comforted is sewn into the fabric of the human being.
Maybe loneliness is a state of mind rather than a state of being. Maybe it is perception, as they claim. But I personally doubt it. We were made to be relational creatures, we were made to need and want human connection. We all need varying degrees of solitude but, at some point, the need for adult conversation outweighs our need for solitude. It validates our thoughts, challenges our beliefs, offers us support and forces us far enough outside our comfort zone for growth. I used to think girls were from another planet. It was either that, or I was an alien, because I had no idea what they were talking about half the time. I had zero interest in any of the things they claimed to enjoy or think about so, obviously, I wasn’t quite right. I grew up and realized that, as much as I loved people, I didn’t believe any of the good things they said about me. When they called me smart, I thought: “No. I just know how to study.” When they called me pretty, I thought: “Only because I’m thin” or “Only because I have a bright smile.” When they said I was a good writer, I thought: “Compared to who?” When they said they loved me, I wanted to know why. So, in essence, my loneliness isn’t anyone’s fault but my own. I tripled reassured them I was fine. I smiled. I offered to watch their kids or to volunteer for their organizations. I became a leader so that they’d have a reason to let me be in their lives. And then, when the stranger held the door open for me, my heart shattered at his kindness. When a reader came up to me at a book signing and said she already had the book, she just wanted a hug, I broke down in tears because maybe I wasn’t as weird as I thought.
I forget that, no matter what the imaginary or real wrongs I’ve done, my life matters. I forget that, no matter what my scars may be or how raw they sometimes still are, I’m not really irreparably broken. I forget that, no matter how lacking in real interpersonal skills I may be, I have something more to offer than being a teacher. Loneliness’s biggest lie is that no one wants to know who I am anyway. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve started to open up to someone, only to stop myself by thinking: “It isn’t that important.” In polls where people have been asked what makes them the happiest, the one constant answer is “family and friends.” But what I’ve learned is that you have to actively reach for what you want. People are not mind readers. They won’t know what you’re longing for, they won’t know that you crave to be a part of their circle, unless you tell them. Maybe they will reject you. Maybe they will say no. Maybe you are too different. But probably not. Probably, you only think so because they’re hiding their imperfections from you just like you’re hiding yours from them. Probably, you only think they’ve got it all under control because you don’t know they sleep on the couch like you do from loneliness. Probably, you think they’d laugh at you or ostracize you completely if you told them you have an on-going medical problem that doctor’s can’t seem to fix only because you don’t know that they went through something similar. Probably, you think there’s nothing you have in common with them only because you won’t accept the lunch date they keep asking you for. Probably, you only think they’re perfect because you don’t know about that time they broke their spouse’s heart, or their best friend’s trust. And you don’t know because you don’t ask and you don’t ask because you keep allowing the fear of inadequacy to steal your breath and your words. So you go home at night and, when all the noise is over and the day is done, try to fill the emptiness in your stomach with books, the white noise of the television or the glare of the computer.
There’s a Sugarland song that says, “I’m not perfect, but I’m worth it.” When all is said and done, we all influence the lives of someone else, whether we know it or not. I had an employee in a gas station tell me once that she was always glad when I came into the store because I was always so happy. I had no idea she even knew I had ever come into the store before. I thought, “Me? Happy? O—kay.” There was a college psychology professor once who gave me a book on domestic violence and asked me to come to lunch with her. She knew something was wrong. But I never called her, I never went with her to lunch, because I knew she saw more in my papers than a competent writer. Today, I regret not taking her up on the chance to really connect. You see… I guess my point is that we have to consciously choose to safeguard our lives from loneliness. We have to fight the lies that tell us we’re less than the ones we admire, and want to know. We have to accept our flaws…. but also acknowledge our strengths. It takes two to tango. Someone can invite me to lunch—they’ve done their part; I have to accept. Someone can ask me how I’m doing—they’ve done they’re part; I have to tell them the truth. And sometimes, I have to make the first move. I see a small group beginning at church; I have to go even if I’m afraid I’ll walk into a room in which not one face will be familiar. I might wake up crying, but I have to believe that it isn’t forever. I can be strong, but I have to vulnerable too. If I don’t, if I’m not, then I’m feeding the loneliness, adding fuel to its flame.
Rejection hurts. It stinks, actually. But by living in fear of it, I guarantee its occurrence. If loneliness is truly a state of mind, that’s a good thing. It means I can fight it. I can acknowledge its presence and decide not to allow it or its lies into my life. I can simply reach out to someone. I can try. I can believe in human beings and in compassion and in human decency enough to say, “hey, you know what? I’m ready for that lunch now” or even “Hey, do you think we could have lunch sometime soon?” Maybe I’ll be rejected. And, if I am, maybe that’ll hurt and bring up old insecurities. But, probably not. Probably, one step at a time, I’ll learn to give myself the benefit of the doubt. Probably, one step at a time, I’ll learn that I’m not an alien. Probably, I’ll discover that my inclusion in others’ lives isn’t to them an obligation, but a welcome surprise. Probably, warmth and acceptance, real friendships and sustainable relationships will develop. Probably, one day at a time, loneliness will continue to fade until it’s replace with comfort, peaceful sleep, meaningful connections and all the other things of which fairy tales are made.