I was surprised to open my mailbox Tuesday night and see a New York Magazine cover story with the headline: “The Loneliness Myth.” The word “loneliness” stuck out at me because it’s a word that I’m forever trying to understand. New York Magazine provides some background on the history of loneliness, saying that it “evolved in hominids hundreds of thousands of years ago, when group cohesion was essential to fight off abrupt attacks from stampeding wildebeests. It’s nature’s way of telling us to rejoin the group or pay the price.”
Sometimes, the price can be costly. For some, repeated bouts of loneliness can lead to long-term isolation, poor eating habits, states of depression and more. It seems the best remedy for loneliness is friends, and perhaps, as New York Magazine suggests, cities. Aristotle wrote in “The Nicomachean Ethics” that “friends are the glue that bind cities together.” I found this to be true when I lived in Boston and Providence. No doubt, one of the hardest parts about moving away from home after college was leaving the family and friends and being forced to find new friends 1,300-plus miles away from home.
So, I made an effort to get to know as many people as I could in hopes of building my circle of friends. And then I dated — a lot. My friends from home joked with me and called me a “dating machine.” My single friends disregarded any notion that Florida is for old fogies and instead became convinced that it is “the place” to be if you’re young and single. My friends who were in serious relationships said they were living vicariously through me, wishing they, too, could go on fun dates. “You’re like Carrie in ‘Sex and the City’!” one friend exclaimed. Alas, it wasn’t that St. Petersburg, Fla., is full of Mr. Bigs, or Aiden Shaws, or Jack Bergers. It’s that I was actively seeking out relationships that would help me feel nourished, loved and less alone.
It’s this universal desire for companionship that led my 86-year-old grandma to start dating her next-door neighbor, Gordon, earlier this fall. For years after my grandfather died, my grandma said she never wanted to find another man. “I’ve got Frank,” she’d say. “He’s just not with me right now.” But when her neighbor of 36 years, Gordon, lost his wife seven months ago, he came knocking. “Dotty, I’m lonely,” he’d say. “Can I have a hug … and a kiss?” My grandma would call me and give me daily updates about her encounters with Gordon.
“What should I do?” she’d say, repeating the same question I grew up asking her. I advised gramz to spend time with Gordon, to give him a chance because “you never know, he could be really good company.” After a few weeks of hugs and kisses, my grandma called my dad and asked him, “How would you feel if I told you that Gordon and I are keeping each other company?” “A.K.A. dating each other?” my dad asked. “Well, yes, dating.”
Now, Gordon and gramz see each other every day. He comes over for lunch, then my grandma kicks him out. He returns for dinner, then my grandma turns on “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” which they watch together until Gordon goes home at 8:30 p.m. On the weekends, they have Saturday night sleepovers. Gordon jokes that they act like they’re 18. My grandma prefers the term “80teens.”
Not only are my grandma’s dating experiences cute — they’re also representative of the notion that we all have a basic need for companionship no matter how old we are. New York Magazine points out that there are public-health reasons to try to combat loneliness. Several studies, for instance, have shown that “married people are happier and healthier, while the odds of dying increase significantly among the recently widowed, something known as the ‘widowhood effect.’ There’s evidence suggesting that strong social networks help show the progression of Alzheimer’s. There’s even better evidence suggesting that weak social networks pose as great a risk for heart-attack patients as obesity and hypertension. There’s also evidence to suggest that the religious people who live the longest are the ones who attend services more frequently rather than feel their beliefs most deeply. (It’s not faith that keeps them alive, in other words, but people.)”
We need other people in our lives. We need them to feel whole, to realize that the substitutes we find for love — food, addictions, relationships for the sake of being in a relationship — pale in comparison to the real thing. When we have trouble finding the real thing and for whatever reason can’t be with friends and family at a given time, there are little ways to remind ourselves of the people around us. For me, these reminders come in the form of lights that shine from my neighbors’ house when it seems as though the rest of the world is asleep, from late-night status updates on Facebook, from the voices of my neighbors’ children as they pile into the family minivan on their way to school every morning.
Turning on my computer also helps. With AIM, and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, there are endless opportunities to connect with others and to remind myself that while I may live alone, I don’t have to be lonely. There’s an important distinction, I think, between feeling lonely and being alone. As an only child, I got used to having my alone time growing up and, like many people, I still like having time to myself. But when I start to feel cut off from other people, my alone time morphs into a sense of separation.
That little rascal named loneliness still sneaks into my apartment, hard as I try to shoo it out the door. The feeling I get at night is eerily similar to the feeling I got when I would come home from school as a child and walk into an empty house. For years, I grew accustomed to coming home and seeing my mom prepare me an afternoon snack. When she was diagnosed with cancer and started to undergo chemotherapy, she didn’t always have the energy to make me a snack — but she was nevertheless there. When she died, a part of me still expected her to be there, still hoped she would welcome me with a hug and kiss, a smile, a hello, even if she couldn’t get up off the couch to do so. But the reality that she wasn’t there, and never would be there, eventually sunk in and filled me with an unrelenting fear of loneliness and loss.
I’ve found that living in a neighborhood helps. Since moving out of the somewhat secluded condominium I lived in last year, I feel much more connected to the world around me. I joined my local library, and I run in my neighborhood, where I see children playing in their front yards and couples tending to their gardens. By going to local yard sales, I’ve met two of my neighbors — a mother who lives down the street and a girl my age who I’ve started running with on a regular basis. There’s something about living in a neighborhood with families that creates a sense that there are people around us who care — about their lawns, about the dogs they walk, about us.
People who live in neighborhoods and populated areas have far more opportunities to connect with the communities around them than those who live in isolated areas where neighbors don’t talk to one another or live miles apart. This relates to New York Magazine‘s description of the “myth” that New York City is a lonely place to live. The magazine argues that while New York City may be the “capitol of people living by themselves,” the city really isn’t as lonely of a place as writers like Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger and others have made it out to be.
I would argue that the “loneliness myth” also has to do with the idea that loneliness is all about the lack of other people. Sometimes, it’s about a lack of self-respect. When talking about guys, one of my friends used to say: “Before you can truly love someone else, you have to love yourself.” It’s a simple, but telling, little phrase. When we love ourselves, we begin to enjoy our own company. Hanging out with ourselves, then, doesn’t seem half-bad. When we respect ourselves, we’re more open to letting ourselves spend an hour alone in bed reading a good book, to curling up with a fleece blanket and watching a movie, to going on long walks that clear our minds.
We all deserve to treat ourselves, to be loved and to feel like we belong in this world. Whether we live alone or in the company of others, there’s hope in knowing that no matter how lonely we feel, we’re never really alone.