The dictionary defines “lonely” as: without company; cut off from others; solitary; and sad from being alone. What loneliness does not mean is weak, boring, painfully shy, without accomplishment, or unable to make commitments. So how is it that we are ashamed to say “I’m lonely?” And when did lonely become a dirty word?
I am lonely. Sometimes infrequently, sometimes often. The feeling may be short-lived or last for a while. And the intensity of it varies from a twinge to a pang to a painful, dark yearning. The surprising thing about my loneliness is that it generally comes for no particular reason, and that all the positive thinking and self-talk and angry denial does not make it go away. I am a woman who knows she is blessed. I am grateful for reasonably good health, a safe and cozy home, a variety of wonderful activities that stimulate my mind and warm my heart, and good friends. And yet I am lonely.
There are times when I have had a lovely day. I may have taken a class or gone to a movie or concert, shared a good meal with friends and arrived safely home.
I walk up the steps to the front door, open it and I’m struck by the deafening silence. I want to holler out “I’m home!”
I want someone who cares about me to greet me and say” how was your day”? And I want to ask them about their day. I want to share. And I want a hug. Not a big deal or anything out of the ordinary for those who do not live alone. But I do live alone and it is a big deal. Until recently I could count on my beloved pets providing me with a warm welcome. But the last one died eight months ago, nearly breaking my heart. It is the first time in 50 years that I have lived without the companionship of a cat or dog. And the decision to not get another one has been difficult. Since I do not have any family, I worry about who would take care of them in the event of my illness or death. And I do not think I could bear the loss of another sweet animal.
There are times when I wake up in the morning with a feeling I can best describe as dread. I don’t want to face the day alone. It is so quiet. But I move about making breakfast and doing my morning chores and hope that the feeling lifts, which it usually does. Sometimes not. And there are times in the evening when I am sitting reading or watching TV or preparing to go to bed when the loneliness is like a malevolent ghost.
There are the times when I am lonely in a crowd. Whether I’m with a group of people I know and like, at synagogue or a special event, I am overcome by a feeling of apartness. It usually happens when the other people are with spouses, partners or family. But not always. Seems silly I know. But there it is, none the less.
Of course,there is the plain old basic loneliness. The simple desire to have someone I like with me when I am taking a walk, doing errands, or any of the other normal daily activities that seem to be easier or more pleasant when done by two. Or the invitations to a party or group activity that can be a nightmare to attend alone.
I hardly ever talk to anyone about this, even my closest friends. And they hardly ever discuss it with me. I know that several of them who have lost a spouse or partner deal with extraordinary sadness and loneliness. But there seems to be an unwritten rule that we carry on, put on a brave face, and do not burden anyone with our feelings. The idea of being vulnerable is frightening. After all, not everyone wants to face the darkness in life. At least not publicly. So we shut down the conversation and live by the motto “it is what it is.”
I want to get comfortable with the idea of calling a friend and saying, “I’m feeling a bit lonely. Do you have some time today to get together?”
I don’t expect that they will always be available or want to drop everything for me. But there is something in the verbalizing of the feeling and making the request that seems to make me feel better. And yes, stronger. And I want my friends to be able to do the same.
I want to get better at being alone. I am an only child and consequently spent many hours by myself. But for the most part I was content with it. Often I relished the quiet and the privacy. Somewhere along the way I lost the pleasure of just being with me. When did I become not enough? And when did being alone always mean being lonely?
I want to stop thinking that I am the only person who feels this way. Of course I know that’s not true. But sometimes it seems that when I am at my loneliest everyone I observe is with someone, happy, like a Hallmark card.
Most of all, I want the word lonely to be just another word in my vocabulary, an accurate description of a temporary feeling that is neither shameful nor odd. I want to hear other people use the word lonely too. There is a lot of talk about the necessity and beauty of community. We come together for all kinds of reasons. We celebrate the joys and mourn the sadness together. Maybe it’s time lonely can be part of community life too.
Carole Leskin is a retired Director of Global Human Resources. Embarking on a second career as a writer and photographer concentrating on her personal accounts of aging, her essays and poetry, frequently accompanied by her photos, are published in Jewish Sacred Aging, Jewish Women of Words, Starts At 60, Navigating Aging ( a Kaiser Health publication), Women’s Older Wisdom, Time Goes By and Next Avenue. Her poems, “Father Time” and “Carole’s Debate” were selected for inclusion in the 2019 anthologies of poetry, New Jersey Bards. Her photos have been featured in Mart R Porter Nature Forum.