Me-And-Only-Me: Learning My Way Around Loneliness

2014-02-03 19.43.36 (2)I have lived and worked in Latin America during the first three months of the past three years. These experiences are at the core of my third-act design for living the life I want and so far I’ve immersed myself in Granada, Nicaragua, Quito and Cuenca in Ecuador.

I go alone because there is no one else to go with.

Each journey begins with excitement but the outer limits of something else I feel moves through the daily routines of getting ready. I am choosing to be alone and it doesn’t take a remarkable social experiment to figure out that I’ll be lonely.

While it doesn’t deter my choice to leave, I do give a lot of thought to it.

Living alone is not traveling a safe path. Deep loneliness is more dangerous than obesity. When a person feels lonely his or her skin literally becomes colder which could explain why I wore fleece when the couple from Vermont were in t-shirts.

My lonely will not be social isolation but still, in a strange country with no friends and only silly Spanish to make do, I know to expect a visit from Mr. Lonesome.

Before you let your heart shrink thinking you will read a painful narrative of soul-crushing emptiness, let me assure you that time will not stand suffocating still during my journey. There is joy and wonder in these ancient cities and I find it.

But I will also find a haunting social stigma of singleness. I will miss physical touch, chit chat, the moment where someone takes the map from my hands and points to where I am, and making a cup of tea to give every morning as a gift of love. I will miss the recognition and respect my husband, the tea drinker, bestows on me.

I will not feel unloved but I will feel uncared for and sometimes misplaced.

How to be alone is one of life’s most important skills and ending up at the tender intersection of life and loneliness can make you strong, reduce you to tears or kill you.

2014-03-15 16.04.22Joy and Sorrow of the Unaccompanied

Crossing a sable sea back-lit by the moon in a small sailboat with my daughter was one of the most exquisite and surprising joys I’ve ever had. Night sailing was a new event of solitude and rapture encountering an extra thump of my heart if I gave way to worrying that the next wave could hurl a container into the bow.

On the three-day crossing from Dominican Republic to the coast of Puerto Rico across the Mona Passage, routine and diligence became mundane but night watches never were. With only the hue from the radar screen, alone in the cockpit a little more exhausted than the night before it was a magic carpet ride in the dark. I learned to love it.

Being alone can be wonderful. But we don’t love it every time.

I discovered a mess of words associated with being alone- loneliness, lonely, lonesome, solitude – each with differing explanations and opinions by credentialed experts that left me with no real clarity on which word to use when. I would need to get another degree to be able to use them accurately.

Some examples:

Lonely is typically used to describe a person who desires a companion or friend.

Loneliness is a feeling of emptiness. or Loneliness is a negative state of mind where you are always longing for the other, never satisfied being by yourself and always looking elsewhere for fulfillment.

Lonesome is beyond simple loneliness; it’s a state of all-consuming loneliness.

Alone is a positive state of mind, a very fulfilling place to be, a state where you are always and constantly delighted in yourself.

Solitude is your own conscious choice to be alone, irrespective of whether you have a galaxy of friends or not. When you’re in solitude, you don’t crave or think about others.

And on the other end of the lonely stick? The opposite of loneliness is unlonely. That’s not helpful.

I am clear about it is and feels like for me. Despite my success meeting people this year in Cuenca, the structure of work and scheduled social activities, there were times I was ‘lonely’ and  ‘lonesome.’ I interchange these words for the same feeling.

I wasn’t depressed. There were no crying jags. I never felt homesickness but maybe more lovesickness. I didn’t spend time contemplating the meaning of life. I would just have liked someone to appear, give me a hug and say ‘hey, wanna go for a walk?’  

Most of us have a kind of loneliness we can describe. According to AARP, 45 percent of adults 65 and older are divorced, separated or widowed and more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million – roughly one out of every seven adults – live alone.

Today, for the first time in centuries, the majority of all American adults are single and the typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone.

To be sure, this trend is far from confined to the U.S. — the four countries with the highest rates of solo living are Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, where up to 45% of households contain just one person.

“Despite its prevalence, living alone is one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time,” states Eric Klinenberg in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

2014-02-09 17.46.41You Can Do Hard Things

When you are alone, the evidence is everywhere. During the last three months I never failed to notice the half empty space of a double bed, restaurant tables set for two or four, the empty tour bus seat beside me or of wondering who might enjoy the rest of my morning banana.

My thoughts always entertain me yet I was distracted by couples talking at the next table or in seats behind me on a bus. Not only did I listen to their conversation, but I’d silently engage answering this question or that. It was fun for a while.

A sound sleeper, I would wake in the middle of the night speculating whether it was the husband or wife peeing in the upstairs toilet.

I wanted to give you, my readers, and me cures for loneliness but I stopped looking because the suggestions were hazy or border-line bizarre:

“Feel god”

‘Take an online class”

“Add more happiness to life”

“Talk to statues”

“Discuss it in a forum on FB”

I am not profoundly fond or exceptional at being alone. Like most of us, I have learned to construct a kind of scaffolding that keeps loneliness at bay. When a weak spot in my protection threatens I’ll say: “okay, we’re going to need to do something about this.” And with each action, I feel strong and it passes.

2014-02-15 15.26.32Sometimes all I needed to do was walk four blocks and have a stilted broken-Spanish conversation with the old woman whom I visited at least every other day. She’d greet me with a smile and together we’d fondle and rave over the avocados. Qué hermosos aguacates hoy!

She was “my fruit lady.” I also had “my bakery lady,” “my tamale lady,”  “my flower lady,” and “my shoe shine man.”

In a March 2014, Issue 459 of The Sun, author Barbara Kingsolver says she learned from her children’s Montesori teachers how to teach the mastery of difficult tasks. “When a task was difficult, that’s when I would tell them, ‘you can do hard things.’ Both of them have told me they still say to themselves, ‘I can do hard things.’ It helps them feel good about who they are, not just after they’ve finished but while they’re engaged in the process.”

Never expect to outgrow loneliness. You just have to sort it out and learn your way around it.

Companionship is not something we can bank on and living life the way we want may mean we’ll do things alone. It’s okay. We can do hard things.

You may enjoy this beautiful video: “How to Be Alone” by filmaker Andrea Dorfman and poet/singer/songwriter Tanya Davis.  I did.

About Barbara Pagano

Barbara Pagano,Ed.S., author and speaker, influenced over 3,500 executives in organizations to achieve higher performance. She is now on a mission to help individuals extend their career arcs and craft lifestyles of productive longevity.
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2 Responses to Me-And-Only-Me: Learning My Way Around Loneliness

  1. Very thoughtful comments, Bill, especially on ‘keeping on the move.’ So many of us want that as we prioritize and craft our second half of life.

    Once I make the move, I tend to want to immerse myself in all the new culture has to offer. And taking my work with me is a priority!

    So glad this post resonated with you . Barbara

  2. Bill Solomon says:

    Hi Barbara,

    Some how I remembered this particular post, found it and read again. It continues to resonate with me.

    We, as humans, do have to keep changing as life and the world changes around us. Learning to cope with those changes is challenging, but ultimately rewarding. I had rather keep on the move the rest of my life than live a life of Groundhog Day. Even if that means failing at things – the important point is go get up and keep on going. Just because a gust of wind knocks over the sailboat doesn’t mean you jump off the boat!

    So glad to hear that you and still traveling and enjoying it!


Would love to hear what you are thinking.