My husband is away (again!) on business and now my children are all away too – either living in their own homes now or doing other things. And people keep saying to me, ‘Aren’t you lonely?’
It’s an interesting question.
It is, of course, true that I am alone at home at the moment. But am I lonely? That is something else altogether.
The question is - am I feeling sad and anxious about being alone?
And the answer is no.
The thing for me is that I so rarely get time alone that I actually cherish it when it comes along. And also, I’ve still been seeing lots of people over the last week or so - when I’ve been ‘on my own.’
But it’s made me think more about what it means to be lonely.
Last Friday I went up to Manchester to visit one of my daughters who started university there a month ago. And I was greatly relieved to find that she has already made lots of new friends. I guess I hadn’t realised it - but I had been worried that she might be lonely.
It made me remember my own days at university when I often felt lonely. When I found it hard to make friends and, even when I did, I didn’t really feel I fitted in.
It makes me sound a bit of a loser to admit that.
But why do we equate loneliness with inadequacy? Why do we look down on people who are lonely as being losers and misfits?
We all experience loneliness at some times in our lives. When we move to a new city, we might feel lonely - until we make new friends. When we have lost someone we love, we cannot help feeling lonely.
Most of us only feel lonely for short periods of time. But, if loneliness persists, it can be really dangerous.
So what is loneliness? Why is it so dangerous? And what can we do to combat it?
The first thing to say is that loneliness is not the same as being alone. You can be alone and not lonely (as I have been this week.) You can be lonely and not alone (as I was at university all those years ago.)
Loneliness is an emotion. It’s the anxiety you feel about a lack of connection or communication with others – both in the present and extending into the future. It’s what Bridget Jones felt as she sipped Chardonnay in her pyjamas watching a movie ‘all by myself’ and envisaged one day still being alone and being eaten by Alsatians with no one knowing her miserable fate.
We are fundamentally social creatures and so, as a researcher at the University of Chicago puts it, ‘to be on the edge of the social perimeter is to be in a dangerous position.’
Richard Lang, MD, from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio says that loneliness can cause more significant health problems than obesity, a lack of exercise and even smoking.
When we are lonely, our brains know something is wrong and they are in a state of high alert. We start producing increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This impairs our cognitive performance, compromises our immune system and increases our risk of vascular, inflammatory and heart disease. Studies show that chronic or persistent loneliness increases our risk of early death by 45% and our chances of developing dementia by 64%.
So what can we do to combat loneliness in ourselves and in others?
First, it’s important to recognise and name what’s going on. And to stop feeling ashamed to admit we are lonely. And then we need to do something about it.
So here are some of my top tips.
First, get more comfortable with being alone. Do something that you really enjoy, that fills you. For me, that might be going to an art gallery or for a walk to the river. Or reading a good book or watching a great film. Even stopping to stroke the cat will provide a connection and make you feel better.
Secondly, be proactive about social engagement. Really listen when someone is speaking to you. A good trick is to expect that they are going to tell you something amazing (which they probably will, if you listen well enough!) Volunteer to help with something – like a local project which provides dinner, bed and breakfast for a group of homeless men during the coldest winter months.
Thirdly, know that you are loved. For me, this is the most important thing. I now know that I am loved (I would say by God but you don’t need to think of it that way.) When we know that we are loved, we don’t take our value from other people who may either puff us up or put us down. And, because we are loved, we are never alone, even in the darkest of times.
You might read Psalm 23 which includes the wonderful words, ‘Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.’ And Jesus’s last words to his disciples on earth were ‘Remember always that I am with you, even to the end of the age.’
A few weeks ago, I was sorting through some old papers and came across some diaries. The older ones simply record what was going on in my life, sometimes I’m having a bit of a moan about things that had happened or about people I’m struggling to get on with. But then, in the more recent ones, I’m also recording what’s going on but only recording three things that I am thankful for at the end of each day. Reading these accounts could not be more different.
It’s easy to focus on the stuff in our lives that is wrong, our inadequacies and shortcomings. But when we make a positive effort to set them alongside all our blessings, they start to lose their power.
Whether you are personally lonely at the moment or not, let’s be more aware of the dangers of loneliness and do more to address the problem for ourselves and for others.
Smile at a stranger in the street, say hello to a neighbour, find a word of comfort or encouragement for a colleague or family member. All these things may make more of a difference than you will ever know.
Martine’s 'Vegan Alpha' course continues on Tuesday evenings and will help you follow a more plant-based diet and explore the Christian faith. Get in touch with her to sign up.
St Michael’s Church: www.stmichael-elmwoodroad.org
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Posted by Martine Oborne