A friend of mine texted me last night who has been struggling a bit with loneliness lately. Her significant other is busy with other responsibilities right now, and she’s becoming aware of the gaping holes in her own social circle. I asked how I could best support her. “Move here,” she said. She was kidding, of course … sort of. But I know that when I’m in a period of loneliness I think it would be so much better if I found a man, had more friends or was surrounded by people. That’s how you cure loneliness, right? Find other people?
I am single with no children. I have periods of loneliness, and I have days where I feel lonely. Feeling lonely for a day or an evening is just a feeling. It’s painful. Loneliness is a boulder on my heart. It’s heaviness stifles my breath – literally. One night when I was camping last year in the North Georgia mountains, I felt really, horribly lonely. I remember lying in my sleeping bag looking out at the stars. The creek bubbled nearby, and fellow campers talked quietly. Why can’t that be me laughing with others, I thought? Why am I so alone? The gripping on my heart slowed my blood flow, and my breathing was so constricted that I felt like I was wheezing. “You are not alone,” I told myself. I could pick up the phone and call anyone I wanted to, and I have some great friends. But, the feeling was there…. and it would not budge. “Just breathe,” I reminded myself. About that time, I heard a bear calling across the mountain.
The Sounds of a Black Bear
I listened to that bear, and I pretended that he was lonely, too – looking for a connection across the universe in the woods. I gazed out at the night and felt supported in my loneliness. It didn’t ease the feeling, but it did assure me that no matter how deep the cut of loneliness, I would always have compadres. The next morning the loneliness was just a memory. Loneliness passes. I just have to breathe through it and accept its painful presence.
Trailer for “Wild”
Periods of loneliness are another thing altogether. My coworker, Tiffany, recommended I watch Wild with Reese Witherspoon. It is the story of a 26-year-old who sets out to hike the Pacific Coast Trail alone in order to confront the demons that are destroying her young life. Along the way, she meets a person on the trail that asks her if she gets lonely out there. “I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here,” she replies. I was lonelier in my marriages than I ever have been single. I’ve come to realize that it wasn’t my partner’s fault that I was lonely. Now that I’ve learned to relate to loneliness, I realize that I was focusing on another person’s presence to keep me from feeling lonely. I didn’t do the things I needed to do to create comfort within me when I was feeling lonely. I mistakenly assumed that since I wasn’t alone, I shouldn’t feel lonely. And it was their fault if I did.
Being alone has nothing to do with loneliness. In periods of loneliness, I have come to realize that we are inherently lonely. No one else ever gets under our skin to really be with us. And, in a world where authenticity is not often welcome, it is rare to find relationships where I can truly be authentic. I may have a handful of relationships where I can really show my ugly, raw, unfiltered insides for the fresh breath of healing acceptance. When I accept that loneliness is part of the human condition and not a failure on my part to be ‘acceptable’, I can stomach it. I have to learn to be my own best friend and enjoy my own company. When I can get into that space, I find being alone enjoyable. When I’m not there, it can be agonizing. Even if I’m in a room full of people, being in a place where I can’t be myself can bring on that soul-smothering loneliness that I felt on that Georgia night.
Cheryl Strayed Talks About Her Book “Wild”
I can’t stop thinking about that movie. I’d love to take off like that in the wild and see it on my own. The truth is I’m too much of a chicken to go out into the wilderness at that level. Interestingly enough, though, the loneliness of it all doesn’t scare me anymore. At one time, it would have scared me to death. I went kayaking when I was in Georgia on the upper Chatooga River. It’s a gentle, beautiful river with only very small rapids. It was just me and Ashok, and it was a lovely day. I saw a few fisherman along the way, but I was mostly alone with nature. At one point, I misjudged where I needed to be to navigate a rapids, and I found myself caught under some branches with the current pushing me under the bushes. I naively grabbed a branch which flipped the boat. The boat floated downstream, leaving me and my dog on foot. The boat kept going. I had to run after it, and it scared me. I was never in any danger, but the thought crossed my mind that this was kind of stupid to do this alone. I finally caught up with the boat, and we were on our way after I had to coerce Ashok to get back in the kayak. In the movie Wild, Cheryl had a couple of incidents where she capsized – metaphorically – in dealing with the challenges inherent in being in the natural world. I remembered my feeling stupid, and I realized that I wasn’t stupid. It was perfectly normal to be challenged by nature, and, if I was alone, well, I was alone in the challenge. I accepted the risk by signing up for the journey.
Cheryl found her strength on the Pacific Coast Trail. She is profoundly different now. I believe that one of the biggest game-changers for me as I’ve traveled my path is my transformed relationship with loneliness. If it is truly a part of the human condition, and I believe it is, I don’t have to fix it. I just have to learn to be in relationship with it. I have to build relationships which are authentic, understand that God is the only wellspring for my soul, and know that I am the only person that is always going to be there for me. I am aware enough to know what I need, I enjoy my own company, and I have the strength to handle whatever challenges life brings. You don’t scare me, loneliness. Go bother somebody else.
“The clamor of ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ was a mighty shout. It could not be drowned out. The only possible distraction was my vigilant search for rattlesnakes. I expected one around every bend, ready to strike. The landscape was made for them, it seemed. And also for mountain lions and wilderness-savvy serial killers.
But I wasn’t thinking of them.
It was a deal I’d made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”
― Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail