This might be a tough post to write, so let me try to paint the edges with some nuance here. It might be rough sledding.
On March 3, 2017, I decided to get incredibly drunk during the day, and that was one of the catalyzing events for the end of my marriage at the time. I’ve looked back on that day numerous times over the past couple of years, and I really don’t fully understand the rationale … the relationship was not good at the time, and we would have reached that conclusion at another point (we probably should have by then, honestly), but I had a hand in the final poker lay-down of our deal, and I wonder why it was that day and that sequence sometimes. And when I think about that, it’s usually about how lonely I felt at the time.
The ironic thing about that day is that, in the middle of this bender I was on at 2:45pm on a Friday for some reason, I was texting with a new shrink I was considering going to … who I did end up going to for a while. He does rapid eye movement theory. You can Google that if you want, but basically you go into a room with a shrink, you focus on a laser pointer type deal, and you talk about stuff and walk through a sequence. The first 7–8 times I did it, it was pretty powerful. I was separated by this point, divorced soon after.
One of the things I did in that sequence of time was … I talked about how, since I had lived in Fort Worth, a lot of times I walked the Trinity River by myself, even though I was in a marriage at the time. It felt like I was always alone, and later stages, I was with my dog. This isn’t entirely true, because in my head now I can remember a few times walking with my ex, but in general, I was by myself in these memories and these stories. I just felt really lonely.
Then I’d think back to those adolescent days of yore on the Upper East Side, where often I’d spend a Saturday walking around by myself, no real friends, no one really contacting me to do anything … it was often a very sad, lonely existence, and then I wonder: Has that been a lot of my life?
In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. I’ve had relationships and I’ve had groups of friends, and while many have gone away, a few have stuck and when I interact with them, generally I don’t feel lonely. I’ve also spent most of the period November 2015 to now working by myself, with my dog since May 2016 (although he doesn’t speak), and that contributes to it. I also get scared of other people, and I get angry when I feel slighted, and that contributes to it.
But what I’d say broadly is that a lot more people than we admit feel lonely, and even now you’re seeing more about feeling lonely at work surrounded by others, and this feels like something we need to be talking about more and avoiding less.
Some stats on loneliness
I’ve piped up on this a few times; all of these articles will have stats, because that’s the way I try to write:
- America’s “I Am So Lonely” era
- Feeling isolated at work
- Are Americans increasingly isolated?
- The “tea” on male depression and loneliness
Now, just today, my friend texted me this deal: “More than 20 percent of millennials have no friends.”
OK, so what’s happening here?
I think this is a pretty decent rundown:
- We spend a lot of time at work, and that’s … usually about silos and walled-off areas (cubicles, offices) and we preach collaboration but often only work with a specific group of individuals and get nervous when others tread into our water.
- And then at home, we often … live in apartments, don’t necessarily talk to our neighbors, live in homes that have fences, and get a lot of stuff from Amazon, which comes to us instead of us having to get it.
- Something trite about phones can go here … phones are part of the problem, but an overblown one. People do get to a spot where they can’t put them down, and we’ve all been at restaurants and seen a couple, both on their phones, etc. We’ve all probably been in that couple too.
- Corners of the Internet, which … makes it easier for people to find their specific pole and never need to interact with anyone different, which would theoretically make life more interesting.
- General decline in community activity in some areas, as … again, people retreat to their phones and Internet and Amazon boxes. (This is a major generalization and not all communities are like this, but many are.)
- Lives get divergent for people as their friends have kids at different ages, which creates social chasms too.
- People don’t really earn that much anymore, and long-term budgeting means you need to restrict some of your spending.
That’s just a beginner list. I missed some stuff.
But isn’t there power in being alone?
There can be, although I’d argue the real answer here is to a point. If you’re consistently alone, I believe that power declines. Being alone periodically and having time for self-reflection and all that? Yes. That’s good. Being alone or on a computer all the time? That’s not as good.
Why do we avoid the loneliness topic?
A partial list here:
- It’s depressing.
- It’s easy to rationalize that you’re not lonely when you are.
- Men especially are not supposed to admit to this stuff.
- We see stuff on social that we “engage” with and that makes us feel “connected” to something in some way.
- Work-side, it’s all supposed to be about growth and gains and productivity, and we feel we cannot let these discussions creep in, or if they do, we’ll call it “a HR issue,” meaning very little will get done about it in the next 28 months.
- Most people want to think they are slaying life, and admitting this stuff can feel shameful.
The shame aspect
For better or worse, very few people — even those who appear tremendously “successful” on face — have any idea what they’re doing with their life. They made decisions around kids and work, and those decisions were inherently crapshoots … while you think you researched it all out well, the fact is there’s no ideal time to have a kid, and any company can erode revenue and start firing peeps. Heard of “disruption?” It happens to whole industries. We’re all just guessing these days at some level.
But we all have this higher-order idea about our life based on where we come from and what people close to us did and told us. When there’s a chasm between “This is what I thought life might be like” and “Oh, this is what happened,” that can cause shame, and it can cause you to feel loneliness. That’s kinda where I am at.
For example, right after college, I was probably 22 and in three weeks I’d be going to Houston to do Teach for America. I go to upstate New York with some friends, and somehow one night, while we’re all basically hammered (we were 22), we talked about “the future” in vague terms. I remember someone that night is like “Well, in 15 years I’ll have two-three kids, be a lawyer, etc…” He did that. You know what I was doing 15 yeas later almost to the day? I was moving stuff from one apartment to another because I got divorced.
OK, so are you supposed to feel sorry for me here? No. I fucked up a lot of stuff along that path and some is on me, some is on others, and I doubt the lawyer life is 100 percent perfect either. This isn’t meant to cast aspersion. Instead, it’s meant to be like … hey, people get lonely, they feel sad, they feel ashamed, they feel vulnerable and humbled, and that stuff is OK to talk about.
It’s hard, but it’s OK.
What about at work?
Now, that’s a different mountain to climb. The point of work to many is heads-down productivity and growth numbers. When you get into personal and emotional stuff, it feels fluffy and people recoil. I don’t think we’re that close to addressing loneliness issues at work.
What we’ve done is convene some task forces (which do nothing) and create some open office floor plans (ditto), so we’re not really creating like, small groups to discuss the culture of actually working at a place … because those small groups would terrify managers into thinking about lost productivity.
Now, you could easily argue that “small groups at work” are “happy hours,” and you would be right about that. However, there’s a small window at most offices where happy hours are normative and consistent. Then people go off and have kids, go to the burbs, start being WFH more, don’t come in on Fridays, etc. Things change, and those who are “left behind” — so to speak, not really — can feel differently in their connection to everything that remains.
Can we fix loneliness?
Sure, and we’ve been trying for centuries. The map goes something like this:
- Work friends
- Broader community
It can work, and I think for most people, it does. For me it has in pockets, yes. Broadly? No. I still feel alone a good deal, although I do keep trying to work on that as much as I can. Loneliness can tie to depression and even sometimes despair, and that needs to be discussed and addressed by more people. When we bury these discussions, we make people feel even more disconnected for feeling these ways.
So let’s admit that the traditional paths might not be working as well as they once did. And yes, when you see a mass shooting — which, yes, only happens in America — the main issue is guns, for sure. Guns and laws. But beyond that, the issue of loneliness is paramount. But we suppress all that discussion for some reason, and that feels flawed.
Have you ever felt lonely?
Feel free to discuss it openly in the comments. I am game for it.