The Life-Giving Fruit of 'Me Too'
Loneliness: the often-ignored, raw feeling in the pit of my stomach; the unreasonable fear when I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and my heart beats out a staccato of fear while my night, my day, my life yawns ahead of me, empty and terrifying. Loneliness visits me with tiny needles of disappointment as I scroll through social media and feel left out. It trickles through my brain while I go on with my life and only rarely do I respond with the soul-cry: Please. I don’t want to be alone.
What is loneliness? It’s the old lady with a bunch of cats, right? It’s the awkward teenager who spends all of her time in various teacher’s rooms instead of socializing with her peers. It’s the grown man who plays video games all day and never exchanges warm words with another human being. But loneliness isn’t limited by stigmas. A friend once shared with me a dark but powerful truth after her recent marriage: “You can feel alone even when someone sleeps next to you.” Our narrow definition of loneliness only confuses us when we look at our schedules and wonder how we could possibly feel lonely.
I don’t acknowledge the reality of my loneliness. I hide it inside me behind a tall dark, gate that I ignore daily, slinking past it and looking the other way like a child who believes that if you don’t see it, it can’t see you. I am afraid of what is lurking behind that gate.
John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, defines loneliness as “perceived social isolation, or the discrepancy between what you want from your social relationships and your perception of those relationships.” In other words, counting the number of cats I have and visiting other humans three times a week will not save me from feeling lonely. Loneliness is about how I perceive the relationships that I do have and rather they stack up against my expectations.
By that definition, we’ve all felt lonely at one time or another. While studies put the number of lonely people between 26% and 45% (a staggering number in its own right), I agree with Sue Bourne, creator of the documentary The Age of Loneliness, who puts the number much higher. Bourne believes “we’re all a bit scared of loneliness – of being alone. Of being left. Of not being loved. Or needed. Or cared about. ‘Lonely’ hits a spot of fear in all of us even if we don’t acknowledge it” [emphasis added].
Then one day, passing by the gate, I pause. It’s cracked open. I approach warily and push against it. With a screech and a clang, the gate creaks open and I see inside a barren wasteland, dark dirt, stunted black trees, and in the center a large empty pit that tugs at me and brings me straight to the edge.
Instead of addressing the problem of loneliness, we often ignore it, or look for a quick fix, like a band aid. Often that band aid is a colorful icon on our phones, full of promising shots of likes, attention, and distraction. Social media is not a villain, but it’s not a healer either. According to Mehmet Oz, MD & Michael Crupain, MD, MPH, “women are 50% more likely to spend time reading about what their friends are doing rather than actually talking to them. And when women are following their friends on social media, they are 3 times more likely to simply read and like their updates rather than leave comments. This may be why some studies suggest that friendship on social media can actually make people feel worse.” Social media can make us feel worse because it looks like connection, but it’s a shallow connection at best and does nothing to appease our loneliness.
In addition to providing only shallow social connection, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites skew our perceptions of our friendships (and our friends' friendships) and create unrealistic expectations of what our lives and relationships should look like. During a particularly stressful time of our marriage, I was confronted with the empirical fact that every couple on Facebook was perfect. They were all beautiful, in love, and MFEO. I sunk into deep loneliness, convinced our marriage was the only one that had ever hit the rocks.
However, once my own life began to settle down, I discovered cracks: friends started opening up about struggles they were having that never made it to Facebook. I realized my perceptions of their lives had been false, based on my projections and their desire for privacy. Tragically, these false perceptions created my feelings of loneliness, isolating me instead of bringing me closer to others.
I stand and look down into the depths, silent tears anointing this moment of coming face-to-face with the chiseling of too many days feeling unseen, unheard, and unvalued. Too late, I see how the barren wasteland of loneliness seeps beyond its gates and infects everything else I do: my perceptions, thoughts, and relationships. It is deep, too deep to fill I fear, and I don’t know what to fill it with anyway because the ground is hard and unyielding, brittle from lack of water.
So we seek to fill our loneliness with social connection of the most common kind and unintentionally dig ourselves a little deeper into loneliness. But we must do more than just stop looking for connection on social media and increase the quantity of coffee dates on our schedule; we need to shift our understanding of what connection really is. Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” This kind of connection takes work, time, and commitment, but it’s worth it because it heals us. Our loneliness will begin to dissipate as we cultivate deep relationships with others.
I stumble away from the pit and begin seeking water, living things, and wholesome soil to plant new seeds in. I find advisors in the form of books and therapists and other gardeners who began long ago to fill in their pits. It takes me a long time to find the right materials because I’m used to flinging in criticism and fear, toxic relationships and manipulative habits that eat away at the pit like acid. But I find the dark brown dirt, full of life, and I plant my first seeds. I cry when the first few don’t take. I keep going.
Achieving this kind of connection with other human beings requires an unexpected element: empathy. Cacioppo explains that when we feel lonely “the brain goes into self-preservation mode to promote short-term survival.” This urge to self protect results in less empathy for others. In studies done by Cacioppo and colleagues, they discovered that when feeling lonely, “everyone shows decreased social skills because they are less likely to take the perspective of others” [emphasis added]. When we feel lonely, we struggle to empathize with others. It’s hard for us to break out of our own hurt and see someone else’s pain because we are in survival mode. Yet Brown claims that “the two most powerful words when we’re in struggle [are] ‘me too.’” The way out of loneliness is to stop saying “It’s only me” and start saying “Me too.” In order to connect with others, we must find those who will listen well to our story and share their own story, allowing us a chance to both give and receive "me toos."
We all have a choice in how we respond to our loneliness. We can walk past the dark pit every day with averted eyes or we can stop, go up to the brink, and survey the damage. We can buy green things and seeds and water just a little bit every day. We can seek to cultivate real connection and fill our lives with people who see us, love us, and value us. We can seek to hear and understand others, to share many "me toos" in our relationships. I know that with work, attention, and love, one day that dark gate will open up into a secret garden full of abundant, life-giving fruit.