LONELINESS & ISOLATION
“One is the Loneliest Number…..”
Three Dog Night
As I write about the epidemic of chronic illnesses that have appeared in the past few decades, I am struck by the changes in our social structures that create isolation and loneliness. It is not that long ago that our culture was supported by a fairly strong nuclear family. It was held as a maxim to live by that “blood is thicker than water.” No matter how badly family members treated each other, they still appeared at family functions and made every effort to find a way to get along. It was expected that the elderly and infirm would be cared for by family.
That does not mean that families were less dysfunctional than they are now. We were just less aware of it. The phrase “dysfunctional family” was not in use. Psychotherapy was the luxury of the wealthy, surrounded by stigmas that were attached to it. More severe psychopathology was covered up as family secrets, not to be discussed in public.
Times have changed. I don’t know if our level of awareness is healthy for us or not (the verdict is not in yet), but we are painfully aware of our family dysfunction and have made some efforts to deal with it. The simplest method is to move away from the family to another state, or another country.
If that is not possible or acceptable, we avoid family get-togethers. While now out of the negative energetic fields that were so difficult to deal with, as this season unfolds, neither do we join our families for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Channukah.
Our social structures have not kept pace with the evolution of the breakdown of the nuclear family. When our parents age, and illness or dementia sets in, we are torn with how to handle it. We have our own stressful lives to live, but how can we dishonor those who gave us life by not attempting to meet their challenging needs? Never before in human history have we been able to live so long, but also in such poor health that caretaking becomes, at times, impossible.
This applies equally to those who are suffering with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Lyme disease, Mold Toxicity, Fibromyalgia, degenerative neurological conditions (e.g. Multiple Sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease)
or any chronic medical illness that may not yet have a name. Those who are suffering often find that their families do not understand their illness (contributed to by physicians who are unfamiliar with these conditions who erroneously label these patients as “psychosomatic.”) and do not know how to support them, or even if they should support them. The individual who is already ill, in pain, exhausted, who cannot sleep, who is anxious and depressed and cannot eat “normally” now has the added stress of having family members who doubt that they are truly ill and provide little or now support, whether financial or emotional.
Is it any wonder that so many of our patients feel isolated and lonely and unloved and unappreciated? While this is easily grasped when it refers to patients who are sick, I have begun to wonder about this dynamic being far more global in our current environment.
The recent horrific tragedies of mass killings in Las Vegas, Texas and South Carolina churches, malls, and bicycle paths in New York City are beyond comprehension. What little we can learn about the perpetrators of these atrocities is that they were isolated from the world they live in, and the more resentful they got, spun delusional stories about how the world had mistreated them that made their actions, to them, meaningful acts of retribution to a world that had spurned them.
Eight billion and more people on this planet, and we are lonely. We may not have family or friends nearby to remind us of what is important, to connect with, to get feedback from. Our thoughts float in a void with no reality testing to balance them.
Many years ago I read a wonderful book by Henri Nouwen called Reaching Out. The first chapter of this book is devoted to understanding the difference between isolation and solitude. Solitude, often embraced by many schools of spiritual study, can be a sought-for place of peace and serenity. Using prayers, meditations, chants, and quiet, we can learn to be at peace with our struggles and to gain perspective on how to allow ourselves to feel these difficulties so that we do not run from them. Rather, we study them and learn from them and find we can then cope more easily. Jack Kornfield, the well-known meditation teacher often reminds us that if we think we have actually achieved a state of serenity with our practice, to spend a weekend with our families to discover whether or not this is true. It can take mere moments back in the family milieu to be thrown back into disruptive feelings of childhood again, as we realize we still have a long way to go.
So, I have two thoughts about how to work with this isolation. The first is to cultivate a spiritual practice with which you are comfortable, to strive for solitude and to recognize when your loneliness is separating you from a feeling of connectedness with the world you live in. In that regard, minimizing your use of electronic media and maximizing your connection to the natural world can be of great value. I cannot help but feel that the lure of cell phones, gaming, and computers has contributed to this isolation. We have the illusion that we have “Friends” out there that we connect to by
“messaging” them. Look around any airport, waiting room, bus stop, or restaurant and see people attached to their phones and laptops. They are not aware of what is happening around them. Perhaps this is intentional, (consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously) using this as a distraction
to forget the stressors of their lives, or their loneliness or feelings of separation from this world we live in. Paradoxically, however, using these devices simply adds to the separation and is, over time, making it worse on a global scale.
The second thought is to create your own family of like-minded people that can support and appreciate you. In the Buddhist tradition, this is referred to as a sangha, and finding and nourishing your sangha is a major component of the spiritual practice. You can find this anywhere, in church, or synagogue, or a bird-watching group, or……but most important is to seek this refuge out and become a part of it.
This can add immeasurably to bringing meaning and purpose into your life, which is a major component of spiritual health.
If you are wondering what all of this has to do with my attempts to bring dialogue into the care of patients with chronic illnesses, as I analyze my process in working with these individuals, I realize that I am working with what is now called a “systems approach”. As a patient sits with me in my office, I am looking at their patterns: patterns of symptoms, patterns of speech and movement, patterns of emotional and spiritual expression, patterns of biochemistry and anatomical structure—–trying to ascertain where they are blocked, or stuck in that expression. I am trying to discover, if I can, which of these patterns is the one that is most important for that individual in interfering with their ability to heal. I need to work with their process, at the level they can access, to begin to move that healing process forward.
On reflection, virtually all of my patients have some degree of loneliness and isolation, and if they can perceive that, then they can start working with it to feel better. Although you may not be aware of it, you are surrounded by love and caring, and if you can open your mind and heart to perceive it, everything will look more hopeful.