There has been a great deal recently written and discussed on the topic of loneliness. Most of you reading this blog have been “around the block” a few times and can most likely relate to the reality that all of us walk through periods of loneliness in our lives. Prior to the last decade or so, the topic of loneliness was never discussed around the dinner table, in the classroom, and rarely even mentioned within the confines of traditional religious services. There was very little authentic sharing of one of our most common human experiences of being in the dark valley of loneliness during certain points in our lives.
Regardless of whether we believe the topic is open for discussion or not, the reality still exists that we all have felt terribly alone at certain points in our lives. There were those school-age experiences of when the best of friendships became strained or a ‘first love’ ended or never actually got started (those of us who were rejected in the school hallway can relate to that reality). There was perhaps a time when the choices we made caused us to fall out of favor with the ‘cool’ group and we felt all alone. The quiet struggle of dealing with being away from home for the first time in a dorm room at college, a cold hard bunk-bed in basic training, or some other place that removed us from the comforts of home brought us into the valley of loneliness.
We do not escape the periodic grip of loneliness as adults either. The times of strained and broken relationships with those closest to us always seem to result in a feeling of loneliness. In the journey of marriage, all of us (it is not an exaggeration to say 100% of us) have walked through a period in our closest relationships where we have felt absolutely all alone even when we have someone sharing the same bed with us. In the workplace, falling short of some performance goal or being an ‘outlier’ on the lower end of some performance grid can bring us into a very lonely spot. The ‘politics’ still present in many organizations can result in us feeling left out of the ‘cool’ crowd and all alone just like in grade school.
Even in the ‘golden years’ of life as senior citizens in retirement, the feelings of loneliness are sometimes even more present. As children and grandchildren progress through new experiences and quite often a very busy season of life, grandparents can feel a huge sense of isolation and loneliness. We could devote a significant amount of time to this topic as 10,000 baby boomers each day in America will reach the age of 65 for about the next 20 years.
The occasional pep talk of just “get motivated” is a good one and may just be the snap-back to reality we need to get us back on track. However, for most people, if it were that easy to snap out of it, they would, and often do give themselves the ‘halftime motivational talk’ and keep moving forward without anybody ever noticing their own internal struggle.
The unfortunate reality is that sometimes the shadow of loneliness grows long and it takes a more intentional effort to overcome. In the book, The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, there is a scene when Mike, one of the main characters, is asked how he went bankrupt. He responded, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” When I speak to adults about the topic of loneliness, I see essentially the same description. A small infraction in a relationship that is first ignored, then another comes along, then another, until a major event triggers a bankruptcy in the relationship and the very real sense of being all alone in the dark valley of loneliness sets in.
As we continue on our journey of building and strengthening our character, there are a few steps we can take to become more resilient in bouncing back from the inevitable feelings of loneliness we will all encounter. The first step, like in most situations, is to have the courage to face reality. In this case, the reality being that we will encounter times of feeling all alone throughout our journey of life. We are not the exception, we are the norm. Accepting this reality will help us to not lose energy on an unproductive sense of denial or surprise when we arrive “gradually, then suddenly.”
The next steps are the real tough ones. In our most struggling times of loneliness, we need to (1) resist the desire to think only about ourselves and (2) move with compassion in service of others. Compassion is defined as a desire to alleviate the suffering and burdens of others. We should make the choice to lift our eyes off ourselves and turn to those around us with compassion and a desire to serve. We will soon realize that one of the major benefits of serving others is the light on our own personal struggle becomes strangely dim.
Below are just a few ways we can work our way more effectively through a period of loneliness by serving others.
In the workplace, consistently passing along sincere words of encouragement to hard working coworkers or stepping up to help someone else deliver on a major project are a few practical ways to move with compassion and serve others.
In the home, when the feelings of loneliness creep into our closest relationships, we need to overcome our natural desire to “go to a neutral corner” and move forward to directly, with sincerity and humility, meet the needs of the one where the relationship is strained. We need to rebuild the connection with compassion to serve rather than be served.
Making a decision to move with compassion to serve others will build and strengthen our character and Character Creates Opportunity® to move efficiently out of the valley of loneliness and into healthier and stronger relationships, especially with those closest to us.