Living in a Lonely World…

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The Mermaid
“I believe in the kind of love that doesn’t demand me to prove my worth and sit in anxiety. I crave a natural connection, where my soul is able to recognize a feeling of home in another. Something free-flowing, something simple. Something that allows me to be me without question…” Joey Palermo

As I was getting ready for work this morning, I heard something on TV that caught my attention. It was a Dr.Oz visit to the Today Show where he talked about some specific health concerns of women. The segment probably would not have gotten my attention, except that I heard something I had never heard before. That is, loneliness is now on the list of top health concerns. It affects our immune system, impacts our mental health, and even causes heart disease.

It almost seems unbelievable that in this day and age of “social media,” people could actually be lonely. But, as Dr. Oz points out, social media is the home of “drive-by friendships.” We tend to think that when we “like” a post, or include a comment under a photo, that we are actually keeping in touch. I think the reason I paid such close attention this morning is because I happen to believe that social media does nothing for our feelings of connectedness to one another. In fact, I would argue that technology – as great as it is – is actually helping us forget how to build real relationships.

For a while now, I have been feeling fairly out of touch with people. Certainly, lives are busier than ever and there’s barely a free moment to just breathe. But I have some friends, for example, who refuse to actually talk on the phone. They will text endlessly, but an actual phone call goes to voicemail almost 100 percent of the time, even when it’s made right after a text. There are even those who will tell me not to leave a voicemail because they don’t listen to messages. “Just text me,” has become a mantra. I am guilty of it myself.

I remember being at the theater last year with a friend. Our seats were in the first row of the balcony so we could easily peek over to see the audience below. Shortly before the show began, my friend asked me to take a look below us. What I saw was a sea of blue screens. I estimated that about 75 percent of the people waiting for the show to start were on their smartphones. Despite being seated with friends or loved ones in a beautiful theater (where you actually have to look up instead of down to see the historical architecture), most show-goers chose to check email, Facebook, or an app instead of engaging with those around them. It was a bird’s eye view of how the world operates now in the technology age.

And so how does all of this relate to the idea of being lonely? It’s simple really. I mean, it is a rare and beautiful thing to actually find someone who “gets” you. That kind of relationship takes time and nurturing. It takes conversation that is much deeper than a superficial press of the “like” button, or the designation of an emoji. For centuries, writers and poets have expressed the deep longing of people to find “one of their own,” another soul who matches ours and with whom we can connect. That kind of attachment, that understanding of another, is precious. It doesn’t happen while we are scrolling. Nor is it maintained through casual interactions.

To further complicate my pondering, I googled the antonym of the word “lonely.” I got words like, “accompanied, escorted, together.” But to me, those words are not the opposite of lonely. In fact, I believe you could be all of those words and still, in fact, be lonely. And perhaps that is the deepest loneliness of all.

To be alone is not to be lonely. Loneliness, I believe, is the sadness that comes from not being understood, not being seen, not being known and accepted for who one really is. A thousand friends on Facebook can’t fix that. But one, true, deep, real connection? That makes all the difference. And now we know, it might just save our lives.

The Burden of Good Intentions

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You know, it’s funny. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how my words, actions, or some combination of the two have the power to make someone feel special. I’ve also been thinking about how my words, actions, or combination of the two – even when well-intentioned – might make someone feel burdened. You see, what I’ve come to realize is that some people –no matter how much we like them – have trouble accepting love. In those cases, short texts that say, “I miss you,” or “I can’t wait to see you,” somehow become guilt triggers. It’s as if my well-intentioned little blip of love somehow becomes an obligation that the person isn’t sure he/she deserves, knows what to do with, or can embrace.

What am I talking about? You’re probably thinking, “Man, I would love someone to text me just to say they are thinking about me.” Well, me too! But I’ve learned over the years that not everyone is like me. And sometimes the baggage people carry is a brand we’d never recognize, even on our worst day.

If you are one of the people who feels anxiety when an “I miss you” is expressed, I can only offer my perspective as a possible way to lessen those negative feelings. My advice is this: take what is said at face value. If I take a moment to say, “I miss you,” it’s not because I want you to say it back (although if you miss me, it would be nice to know). I also am not saying it to make you feel guilty. As a person who literally goes crazy without an ability to express myself, I am simply releasing an emotion that is weighing me down. I am taking an otherwise crappy feeling and turning it into a positive energy in the world. It’s nothing more than a condensed version of: “Hey you – over there – even if I just saw you last night, I am missing time in your presence and I really hope we can at some point, without asking you to commit to a time or place, reconnect.” Moreover, it’s saying, “Even though I am super busy and you are super busy, I am thinking about you and I wanted you to know.”

In addition to the above, I also ask those who shy away from affection to remember that it takes a certain amount of courage to express something like, “I miss you,” or “I’m thinking about you.” The person who initiates that kind of sentiment is trusting that you’ll place at least a little value on what’s in their heart. And so while it may make you uncomfortable to say something similar back, I encourage you to at least find something to say in response (although I’d avoid “thank you”). After all, it’s been said that our legacy is determined by the value of a person’s relationships. And any relationship – with too much neglect – is destined to fail. So step just a little out your comfort zone to appreciate that. Even if you don’t feel like you are, you might just be special to someone. And that’s pretty awesome.

A friendly consideration…

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Since this is a blog about relationships, I thought I’d talk a little bit about friendship. Friendship, I think, is the foundation of any solid relationship. Whether that friendship turns into a romance or if it remains platonic, it requires attention. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the friendships in my life. Admittedly, I realized that there are a few very important relationships I have been unintentionally ignoring; but there are also others that I think I’ve been maybe nurturing too much.

To the dear friends who I’ve left feeling ignored, I apologize. Chances are good that if you haven’t noticed my lack of contact, you’re not one of the people for whom that apology was intended. But if you read that first sentence and thought, “Yeah. I haven’t heard from her in a while and I wonder why,” or if you’ve been feeling like I’m distant (maybe that distance has even annoyed you)? Yep. That was for you. There are a handful of you that I could absolutely do a better job of keeping in touch with. I’m sorry. I will try harder. And I mean that sincerely.

Conversely, there are a handful of people who get entirely too much of my energy. I think about those people, I make time for those people, I reach out to those people to see how they are. Some of them deserve that attention; some do not.

In a meditation class I recently took, we spent a lot of time on living in the moment. The goal was to learn how to focus energy on the present, to let go of the energy of other people, and to become more self-aware. Through a series of exercises, I was asked to visualize things outside the present, to release the energy associated with them, and to picture blowing them up. And when I say “blowing them up,” I literally mean visualizing them in the distance and then blowing them up – with TNT, with a shotgun, as fireworks. We were told to use whatever worked for us to make those visualizations completely disappear. I think the whole point was to help us release any energy we were carrying from those people and experiences and to learn to live more fully in the present, but for me that exercise of blowing things up was very stressful. I never really mastered it.

As I think now about letting something go, I realize that we rarely do that with people and relationships in an active way. Instead, we begin to ignore someone or we change the parameters of the relationship in such a way that it simply begins to fade. And, as it is slowly and passively dying, we make excuses for why that’s happening: I’m busy, he moved, we had an argument, I work so much, etc., etc. etc. Often, this process of delay and excuses causes us a lot of undue stress and guilt.

Are there relationships in your life that are dying a slow death? If you can identify one or some, I think the most important question you can ask yourself is whether or not the loss of that relationship truly matters to you. If that person with whom you were once close disappeared completely from your life, would it make you sad? And, if you knew there was something you could do to hold onto that relationship, would you? If the answer to those questions was “yes,” I think you know what you need to do.

But if you answered “no” to those questions, I pose another: Why are you holding onto something that means so little to you? Is obligation or guilt the reason? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t someone to be my friend for those reasons. And you probably don’t either.

Today’s social media world has transformed the word “friend” into a verb. You can now “friend” someone and instantly access their life, their families, their everyday. In that way, the word “friend” has lost so much of its meaning and significance. And then we are left dumbfounded to understand why people feel lonely. The truth is that there is a significant difference between being a friend and being an acquaintance.

I guess my point is this: It is important to decide what role people really play in our lives so that we can spend our energy wisely. Investing too much energy in someone who is not really a friend is like waiting for a ship at the airport.


Bleeding Out

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“I gave it all
… But you can’t stop taking from me…And way down I know…You know where to cut me with your eyes closed.”

I’ve been thinking recently about loss. Not loss as in the sudden and dramatic kind; more the kind of loss that happens over time.  In relationships, this kind of loss happens when one person decides they no longer value a connection as they once did, when life situations pull people apart, or when one friend or partner has made a mistake and the other refuses to budge toward forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s the most painful kind of loss. Why? Because you feel it happening every single second and, despite any effort to close the gap, it continues to deepen and widen. In this way, it is not the loss we experience with death. Rather, it is a living loss. Where a loving and thriving relationship used to be, there is now a gaping hole; a monster that instead of just killing us with mercy, simply tears a limb off every day.

How many of us experience this kind of loss? Perhaps we hold onto something too long, hoping something will change. We bury hurt feelings, look away from indiscretions, and make excuses for times when another person hurt us (and maybe deeply) because the idea of just tearing off the band aid is too much to bear. It’s as if we think we might just bleed out uncontrollably if separation happens too quickly. So, instead, we bleed out gradually. How many of us are in a relationship like this? And while we hold on, hoping to preserve some part of what made us happy, how much of ourselves is bleeding out as well?

There are many reasons we allow this kind of slow death to happen in a relationship. If you’ve been there, you have your own reasons. And they are YOUR reasons; no one should judge them. I suppose we all walk away in the time and manner we are ready. Or, in less often circumstances, perhaps we find a way to mold the relationship into some new form that suits our needs. In any case, there is a grief associated with the loss of something that once was. And that grief can be deep and significant. But the pain associated with loss doesn’t mean that letting go is always the wrong thing to do.

More than 15 years ago, I let go of a marriage. We were married young, were too different, and despite our best intentions, just couldn’t make it work. We tried. For eight years, we tried. Then one day in the car on a Sunday afternoon, I was finally able to let go. I don’t know where that strength came from and I’m not sure I’ve seen it since. But during a perfectly normal moment of silence, I was able to say, “I’m done.”

I had a conversation last night with a woman who recently lost her son to a drug overdose. What struck me is that for years, this woman suffered that gradual loss of her son. I’m sure that in moments of hope and optimism, she believed he might someday get clean and rebuild his life. But in her words, she “knew this was coming.” The only peace she now finds is in the fact that the slow bleeding has stopped and her son is at peace. She no longer has to worry. Now, she just has to heal (easier said than done).

I write this with no good words of advice and no real “a-ha” moment of revelation. Instead, I just wonder how many of us are in relationships that are gradually causing us to bleed out. And, I guess I hope that when the bleeding stops – for whatever reason or in whatever way – that we are left able to heal and empowered to grow even stronger than we once were.

(Opening quote is from the song, “Bleed Out,” by Blue October. Hear the song and see all lyrics here.)

Life Outside the Blind Spot

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While cruising at 70 mph in the right lane of a three-lane highway, I was recently forced to swerve onto the shoulder by a driver in the adjacent lane. Without a signal, the driver suddenly began to move into my lane without the space to safely do so. Because he was navigating a newer model Mercedes, my guess is that a blind spot alarm warned him of my presence and he quickly veered back into his own space. No harm done. But since then, I have been thinking about the blind spot and how it leaves us vulnerable.

Of course my reflections about the incident have very little to do with cars or traffic (although I am grateful that no accident occurred). What I am thinking about is the idea of changing lanes; not lanes on a highway, but life lanes that take us from one point to another as we age. Every person’s journey is different. But all of us, no doubt, have been affected by something we never saw coming. These things were in our blind spot. And when they impact us, we are often left shaken or even broken in some way. Wouldn’t it be nice if our lives came with an alarm like the one on that Mercedes?

Some might argue (and to some extent I would agree), that in many instances we could have forecast potential misfortune, or disappointment, or hurt in our lives (especially when it comes to relationships) if we had been paying just a little more attention. More intuitive people, for example, are able to sense things that “just aren’t right.” And in many cases, a retrospective look at a situation allows us to see the indicators that were there all along. I guess the question really becomes about whether the things in our blind spots were really invisible to us, or if we just ignored them, made excuses for them, or hoped they would somehow disappear.

To take the point even further, do we allow people we love to live inside our blind spots? In other words, do we give those people a pass on words or behaviors that potentially damage our own sense of self? Do we overlook traits or qualities that are less than desirable because of our own needs for safety or security? And if so, how good are we really being to ourselves?

Conversely, how might the people we love serve as a kind of blind spot alarm for us? Like a blind spot detection system in a car, those closest to us are sometimes able to see things for us that we just can’t. If a blind spot in a vehicle is described as “an area that cannot be directly observed by the driver while at the controls, under existing circumstances,” it makes sense that blind spots in our lives may work the same way. While we are busy being in control, the existing circumstance does not allow us to see potential harm. We are often blind to our own shortcomings or insecurities, or too focused on maintaining our cruising speed to reach a destination. Those in the car with us are often just able to see the things we can’t. As for the ones who bravely point us back toward safety? They are the people you want in the car – for the duration of your journey.