In dealing with my own experience of loneliness, I’ve been conducting an ongoing effort to nurture new friendships and create a bit of community for myself since I moved to Birmingham on the heels of my divorce. So, instead of slinking off to lunch by myself the other day, I decided to walk through the Department of Pastoral Care here at UAB Hospital looking for someone to go to lunch with me. The first guy I asked had already eaten. The second guy had an appointment. A third was out on a call and all I met was an empty office. No one else was around, so I went slinking off to lunch by myself. With shoulders sagging, feeling profoundly sorry for myself, I found myself thinking, “See there! All those folks have a solid set of friends and acquaintances. They have their circles already established and there’s no way I can create that here in this town. Dang, I just don’t belong.”
Fortunately, I was also thinking about writing this blog post, so I remembered one of the points I was going to make. Loneliness distorts perspective and a distorted perspective makes all kinds of illogical connections between unrelated, simultaneous events. Calm, unemotional logic reveals the fact that my chaplain colleagues had previous appointments because they’re busy chaplains, NOT that I don’t belong. The emotional energy of loneliness, creeping up on me in an unguarded moment, however, fused lines of reasoning. I actually rendered a self-deprecating assessment based on no evidence.
I admit it’s not easy. Loneliness carries with it an oppressive emotional cloud, which is why I’ve used the metaphor of a “beast” to describe it. Nevertheless, I’ve found that it actually lessens that emotional energy if I can just engage a tiny bit of my reason and discipline my thoughts a bit. Here are a few things that have helped me tame this loneliness beast, just bit.
First, avoid “awfulizing.” In monitoring my thought process, I put a red flag beside any thought that uses terms like “never” or “always” or “no one” or “everybody,” etc. “My God, it’ll be like this for the rest of my life.” Or, “This’ll never end.” Or, “No one loves me.” When I examine these statements, I find that none of them, particularly that last one, is inevitably true, though falling into a “poor-me” attitude can become rather tedious socially. Saying something like, “the rest of my life,” would require an ability to foresee the future which no human possesses. And the thought I had about not belonging is really dumb. I was hired for this job on the merits of my skills, training, and experience – a profound affirmation of my belonging. Such “awfulizing” statements need to be seen for what they actually are: verbal expressions of negative emotional energy which distort perspective on reality. The very next day, four of us chaplains went to lunch together.
Second, beware “shouldda.” When I hear myself say any sentence that begins with the expression, “I should’ve,” I wag a finger at myself. For instance, since arriving in Birmingham I’ve found myself thinking a few times, “I should’ve taken more time to consider my options” before moving out of town. When I get into that game, there’s really no winning, because the phrase “I should’ve” is an unverifiable proposition. I can only assess the results of the life I’ve actually lived, not an imagined alternative. When I banish “I should’ve” from my thoughts, settle down and reflect on it, consult the journal entries I made while weighing my options at the time, I remember how much sense the decision made when I made it and how the prospects of working at UAB excited me. When I quit playing the “shouldda game,” confidence grows, and I feel more like a winner. I even gain the ability to laugh at myself. You see, the truth is if I’d decided not to take advantage of the opportunity to move to Birmingham, I guarantee you I would’ve been saying as I sat around in my lonely apartment in Richmond, “I should’ve taken that opportunity to move to Birmingham.” Loneliness tends to accuse the self of being less than it is and does that in one way by distorting memory. The emotional energy of loneliness feeds on self-recrimination and can only survive in its destructive work by obscuring contrary evidence and positing no-win scenarios.
Third, be intentionally reflective. To switch metaphors, loneliness can fog your thinking, and when you’re in the middle of a fog, you need to slow down. I have noticed that I tend to look for ways to run from my loneliness. I’ve discovered that it’s better to resist that impulse and make some space for reflection. I’ll read some meditative or devotional literature which helps me pay attention to myself. And I make a regular practice of journaling. When I respond that way, I discover resilience growing. In fact, I highly recommend the discipline of journaling. As I wrote in my book The Species with a Call: How We Find Purpose for Our Lives through the Power of What We Love, “Something transcendent happens in journaling. As I record my thoughts, I have to use language to express them. The process of using language forces me to organize my thoughts. In the process of organizing my thoughts, I come to understand better the feelings that arise from my thoughts. As I’ve written about my circumstances and then reread what I’ve written, I’m able to identify the inadequacies in my thinking. Inevitably, I’m able to generate alternatives and remember other factors in my life which depression often obscures. That writing process frequently yields new hopefulness.”
So, don’t go running from your loneliness. It really is an opportunity to grow deeper. And when you do emerge from the worst of your loneliness, you’ll have new depths to share with all your new friends – and your old ones.