The Cure for Loneliness
The Cure for Loneliness
It is the unbearable burden. Not merely to have gone through hell, per se, but to have done so and for there to be no one who understands it. Fifty-four percent of Americans say that no one knows them well. Forty-six percent say that they always feel alone. And this is a double-bind, because of our nature, because we are social animals, animals who understand ourselves through being understood by others. It is in our nature to tell our stories, and—by having them received, by watching them land on someone else, and to feel someone feeling with us—to understand them ourselves. This is what great therapists do: they accompany. This is what great listeners do: they listen not only for the parts of the story that we, the tellers, understand, but also for the parts where we do not even know what we are saying; we cannot yet know what we are saying, for we haven’t yet felt it fully. In the tears of the listener, their hitch of breath, I see the sadness in my own story that prior to that moment was just a recitation of what happened. By being witnessed, I come to know myself. This is the dance of reciprocity: an echo back to the earliest moment of the infant being held, both bodily and in the eyes of the caregiver. Self-regulation through co-regulation. Self-knowing through being known. There are parts of our stories that can only be metabolized when they are held by another. Think for a moment, of the mechanism of releasing grief, the actual moment when the dam is loosed. We hold the grief, we are overcome, overpowered by it, rendered mute, rendered numb, because we cannot say, we cannot admit—to ourselves or anyone else—what the person we lost meant to us. It is only in the telling…in the bringing it to voice, the attempting to articulate the loss, the long pause when words will not come despite our trying to name it, the struggle to make someone comprehend and the failure to find words, the inability to bring it truly to the surface, to make it known… It is only the attempted telling, a telling that is also our inability to speak it, that ruptures the frozen iced-over place…and lets the stream begin to flow. Sometimes it is only then that the waters begin to move, the tears to fall.
There is one story that we keep trying to tell, one story that we must tell, in order not to be lonely, and that is the story of our lives. All fiction, perhaps, is some form of memoir. We are compelled to tell a particular story. Because loneliness isn’t simply being by ourselves. We can be lonely surrounded by friends and family. Loneliness is the awareness, the felt sense, that no one is truly with us. Loneliness is, You don’t know me. That at the deepest, most primal level, no one understands who we are. No one really sees us; no one truly accompanies.
And so we want to become the kind of people who can truly accompany. What does it mean to truly accompany? It means that I have to be able to listen, to set aside my skepticism, the refuge of my critical distance, and to become wholly absorbed in your story. Not to the point that I lose myself, but to the point that I lose my disbelief. To the point that I lose the need to fix you, to defend myself from your losses. To the point that I allow myself to be moved by your story–to weep when you share your grief, to jump for joy when you share your triumphs. To be a good listener means that I believe you in your story. That I am with you. That I reach my hand out and accompany you wherever the story may lead.
And the interesting thing about this is that in order to not be lonely, I need to learn to accompany myself in this way also. And who is this self that I need to accompany? It is all the unfamiliar parts. All the parts that are different. Contradictory. Mis-behaving. Shut down and walled off. Hidden. Veiled. Oblique. Mysterious. People do not know themselves when they do not know their darkness. It is easy to know the parts of ourselves that we are proud of. It is easy to show the world the face that we think it wants to see. But to not be lonely, we have to point the flashlight into the cave. To the failures, the losses, the fuck-ups, the regrets, the shadows. Not to get lost in them, not to become swept away in guilt, or paralyzed by our own unripeness, but to see them, to accompany them. Until the soft overcomes the rigid. The humble overcomes the arrogant. Water always flows to the lowest place. We have to clean our hearts, we imperfect beings.
I am not the worst thing that I’ve ever done. Neither am I the best thing that I have ever done. In this moment, I am the comprehension—the living, breathing, feeling sum—of everything I’ve made sense of in my life, and what I haven’t made sense of that drives me subconsciously. I am a verb, and what I haven’t faced owns me. James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” And I can’t face it alone. It is too much. It is too overwhelming, too painful, too bitter a pill to swallow. I can only face it with you, if you grip my hand and hold tight to me. I can only face it if we go together and you can hold onto me while I weep, and while I am deathly afraid. Because if you are not there, I am afraid I will drown in my grief, succumb to my rage, or be frozen in my terror. I won’t be able to face it alone.
I almost died in 2012. Of loneliness. That’s not how it manifested. That’s not what they wrote on the papers admitting me to the hospital, or the psychiatric facility. But what almost killed me was loneliness, and the only thing that kept me alive was that three people–my wife, Lea; my father, Mark; and my friend Mitchel–refused to let me go. They refused to give up on me, long after I had given up on myself, long after I had lost the ability to control my mind. They doggedly, steadfastly, ceaselessly refused to let me go. And it was this. Not any medication, though there were many. Not any insights, though eventually those came. It was their refusal to let go that eventually annihilated my sense of isolation. This is what healed me. Or, better, this is what finally broke through to the place inside me that couldn’t be healed, because it couldn’t be touched, because it was alone.
Alone since I was seven years old, and my beloved community–my best friend, my second mother, my aunts and uncles–the land that I loved in a way that was not different from my love for life itself–was taken from me in a single swoop, taken with a single move.
If I wanted you, dear reader, to understand me, I would have to tell you about what it was like for me at 7 years old when this happened. I would have to convey to you what it was like.
I remember waking up in my new house in suburban St. Louis a stranger. Not only to that new place, but to myself. A double exile. For me, this was the crime scene. At seven years old, I found myself in the midst of my family, alone. It was not even something I was consciously aware of, on the day to day. Feverish at night, at first, alone in a strange house, a strange land, my family even then useless to me–how could they not understand that they had extracted me from my place and my tribe? And in my head, in my body, my nightmares–Where is my best friend Galen, where is my second mother Camilla, where are they? Where is the forest?
The adults watching me: He’s feverish. He’s hallucinating. It’s just a bad dream. Hold him down, I’m afraid he’s going to hurt himself thrashing like that...
And in my dream: Where are the trees? Where is the stream? Where am I? How could they do this to me? What just happened? The grief of it a hand forcing me underwater, away from the surface, the light, a suffocation.
That’s what it was like for me. That’s what happened. To cope, I went up into my head. To not feel that. I didn’t do it on purpose. And that part of me–the best part–my boyhood self, utterly creative, curious, awake to the world, an open book–got buried deep. And I trundled along, going to school, playing tennis, getting into Yale, until eventually I cracked. Until eventually that root loss overwhelmed me and I passed through various manifestations of increasing psychological severity that are all of the words we use to describe the experiences of people who can’t make sense of their world. Until, haltingly, accidentally, through determination and grace, I began the soul archeology to resuscitate my true self. Until I dug back into the darkness.
What happened, eventually, was that I found my child self through a vision in a ceremony. Not elsewhere, but deep within myself. In the ceremony I found him curled in a fetal position in the dark closet of the room they put me in after we moved, the second floor of my childhood home on Dielman Road in Saint Louis, Missouri. In the vision I found his mouth wired shut. Not sutured. Wired closed. Mouth and throat stuffed with dirty socks so no sound could come out. Barely breathing. I found this, the best part of myself, in a ceremony. And there was nothing I could DO for him. There was no doing that could fix it. The only thing I could do was hold him and not let go. I say it was a vision, because I don’t know how else to communicate this to you, through words, but that makes it sound like something fleeting, dream-like, insubstantial. And it wasn’t any of those things. Through the portal of a ceremony, a restorative practice, I time-traveled back to my true self and took hold of him.
I am the me that reclaimed the best parts of myself that were buried by grief and brought him back with me to the time called Now. The only thing that ever hurt worse than doing this was not doing it. It took years to bring him back, once I found him. It was an agonizing process. Years. And it took other people holding me like that, refusing to let go, no matter what. Unconditionally refusing. We have to be taught to refuse to let go. Living in a disconnection engine, we must be re-trained to refuse to let go.
The San people say that we need story catchers. We need people to catch our stories. We need to tell them our stories, and we need them to hold these stories, to honor them, to hold them with reverence. We are not the worst things we’ve done, we are not the worst things that have happened to us, but we can never really let those things go until they are understood. We can’t grow beyond a story that we don’t understand. Our story. And that understanding, when it comes, it changes us. If we understand the worst things that we’ve done, the worst things that have happened to us, we are compelled to awareness. Sometimes that awareness is atonement, sometimes it is forgiveness, compassion. But it changes us, to face our own stories, to tell them and have them be received.
I’ve told you my story in a page and a half. To really know me, all you really need to know is this: I’m a man who grew up a boy in a tribe, who had that tribe taken from him, and who has spent the rest of his life doing what needed to be done to get back home. In the modern world we are exiles all, the spiritual descendants of Odysseus, that man skilled in all ways of contending, yet longing for home. The genre of all our stories is the literature of exile, until we figure out how to get home. It may be that literature itself is a product of exile: that once we are home we won’t need these kinds of stories. I don't know.
If we don’t learn to tell our own stories, someone else will tell them for us, and we will not recognize them as our own.
The cure for loneliness is not in other people: it is in bringing ourselves to other people. Not the version of ourselves on the surface–that will never make us less lonely. The cure for loneliness is in bringing all the imperfect parts of ourselves: the ones that are ugly, unresolved, wounded, and grieving, and letting those be witnessed. This is called vulnerability.
And it is a practice. The Practice of Vulnerability. We practice vulnerability each time we attempt to say what we really feel, as our heart pounds and we are unsure of our words, and don’t know how to make known what we feel, and yet stay with it. When we let the unknown break the surface, and allow ourselves to be seen. We are taught to avoid the pain. It is no accident that the epidemic is opioids. We live in a culture of painkillers. Consider even that word. As if pain had no meaning. We are taught to numb out, anaesthetize. If we have a headache, we try to make it go away. But as Karin Locher, the developer of spatial medicine and a pioneer of integrative healing reminds us, even cancer is a verb. And as Roberto Almanzan, a Latino therapist and diversity trainer in Lee Mun Wah’s seminal documentary about racism in America, The Color of Fear, says, The cure for the pain is in the pain.
To not be alone, my brothers and sisters, we have to allow ourselves to be touched by our own vulnerability. We need one another.
Related Practices:See Tell Your Story. See Heartfulness. See Escaping the Prison of the Mind. See Healthy Relationships.
Who taught us this?
The Cure for Loneliness was one we learned the hard way.
Teach me how
Check here for classes.
Who taught us this?
The Cure for Loneliness was one we learned the hard way.
Teach me how
Check here for classes.
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