- - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Have you ever been lonesome? Of course you have. It’s natural to feel lonely, especially following a break up or move to a new location. We’d have no country music or blues if no one ever felt lonely! But there is another kind of loneliness, loneliness that persists, and that loneliness is deadly.

• What steals more years of our lives than obesity?
• What is as much of a risk to life as smoking?
• What shortens a lifespan as much as poverty?

The answer is loneliness. There is a growing epidemic of loneliness, and it is quietly killing us. Loneliness is everywhere around us, but we dare not talk about it since we are Americans, proud of our rugged individualism, steeped in the myth of self-sufficiency. Increasing numbers of us are lonely, and ashamed of it, because we mistakenly consider it a sign of weakness.

People can become imprisoned in their loneliness, which is what happened to the troubled computer programmer featured in the hit TV series, “Mr. Robot.” He hacked into his therapist’s private life and resonated to her isolation. That human connection enabled him to cry out in a therapy session, “I want a way out of loneliness, just like you!” Indeed many of us do.

Our lives are increasingly isolated. More of us are single, live alone, don’t belong to churches and volunteer groups, have longer commutes, or work from home, without the casual social contact of the water cooler and coffee room. Social isolation can creep stealthily into a life, and, with nothing to dislodge it, become the new normal.

You can be lonely in a crowd. You can be lonely in a marriage. One of the basic ingredients of a good life is having a confidant – someone to tell your troubles to, someone who “gets” you, who “sees” you, who is happy to listen to you. Yet one out of four of us have no confidant outside of the family. Another one out of four have no confidant at all.

Think about that: Half of all Americans have no close friendships.

Loneliness is associated with addiction, depression, anxiety, paranoia and even suicide. It has become cliché to hear neighbors describe a mass shooter as “a loner.” Science has been able to observe the effects of loneliness even at the cellular level, although how it happens is not yet understood. This, however, is well understood: not only do we need human connection to be whole, we need it just to stay alive.

Let me be clear, spending time alone is not the problem. Solitude is not loneliness. Solitude is delicious and necessary. It nourishes peacefulness and creativity. Solitude recharges the batteries…which are then able to connect.

What can be done about the epidemic of loneliness? Is loneliness simply the price we pay for a culture of individualism? Or can we find a way to balance autonomy and connection? I believe we can. We must.

Let’s begin by de-stigmatizing loneliness. It is a human condition, not a character flaw. Not only is there no shame in loneliness, there is nobility. It is noble to yearn to be part of something greater than oneself, and to do that one must connect. Is there someone you haven’t heard from in a while? Give them a call. Strike up a conversation with that neighbor who always seems to be alone.

If you are lonely right now, it is important to know that you are not alone. Welcome to the club … and say hello to the other members.

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