The “L” Word

After one full year of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s time to tackle the “L” word…as in loneliness. If ever anything has hit our society and the world that has caused so much loneliness and isolation, it is Covid-19; however, in actuality, it just added to the already existing universal epidemic of loneliness that has existed long before the pandemic arrived.

In an article published on May 19, 2020, on Time.com titled, COVID-19 Is Making America’s Loneliness Epidemic Even Worse,” by Jamie Ducharme, TIME staff writer covering health, she opens her article with the following:

Driving around her Kearney, Missouri neighborhood is both respite and torture for Kathie Hodgson. She likes seeing other people out and about; it reminds her what life was like before COVID-19. But Hodgson, a 41-year-old teacher who lives alone after a recent divorce, says seeing happy families playing in their yards or walking their dogs can also send her plunging deep into a spiral of loneliness.

“You know, as much as I have valued my independence in the past year, it’s finally hitting me that I would like to curl up on the couch with somebody at night,” Hodgson says.

The irony, Hodgson says, is she was thrilled to live alone before the coronavirus pandemic hit, enjoying her “me time” and the newfound ability to date and see friends whenever she wanted—not long ago, she lived with her kids (who recently grew up and moved out) and a partner (who she recently divorced). But now that she’s confined to her apartment almost 24 hours a day, she is feeling the emptiness of her home acutely.

“Some days I smile and feel okay,” Hodgson says. “And other days I curl up in a ball and wonder if this goes on too much longer, will I be able to take it mentally? Can I last sanely living alone for months—a year?”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, public-health experts were concerned about an epidemic of loneliness in the U.S. The coronavirus has exacerbated that problem, with most face-to-face socializing for people still under lockdown orders indefinitely limited to members of their own households. For the 35.7 million Americans who live alone, that means no meaningful social contact at all, potentially for months on end.

Experts are rightly concerned about the mental health ramifications of this widespread isolation, especially since there’s no agreed-upon tipping point at which acute loneliness transitions into a chronic problem with long-term consequences. A group of doctors from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School warned in an April 22 commentary published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that physical distancing and stress caused by the pandemic, combined with rising firearm sales, could worsen the suicide crisis the U.S. has already been weathering for more than a decade.

On the other hand, some mental health advocates are optimistic that COVID-19 will finally give loneliness the mainstream recognition it deserves—possibly paving the way for a more socially connected future.

For such a common experience, loneliness is surprisingly slippery to define clinically. Loneliness is not included in the DSM-5, the official diagnostic manual for mental health disorders, but it goes hand-in-hand with many conditions that are. It’s often lumped together with social isolation, but the two concepts are different. Social isolation is an objective indicator of how much contact somebody has with other people, whereas loneliness is “the subjective feeling of isolation,” says Dr. Carla Perissinotto, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco who studies loneliness. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely, nor does being around people mean you’re not, Perissonotto says. Loneliness is a feeling only the person experiencing it can truly identify. (Quote source and the rest of the article is located at this link.)

As noted in the article above, Social isolation is an objective indicator of how much contact somebody has with other people, whereas loneliness is the subjective feeling of isolation…. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely, nor does being around people mean you’re not…. Loneliness is a feeling only the person experiencing it can truly identify.” This distinction is important.

To show just how pervasive loneliness is in America, here are some pre-pandemic statics from a survey conducted in 2019 taken from the above article from CIGNA surveys on loneliness in America (source here):

Share of Americans who reported being lonely in 2019 (pre-pandemic):

Generation:
Gen Z (18-22): 79%
Millennials (23-38): 71%
Gen X (38-51): 65%
Boomers (52-71): 50%
Silent/Greatest (72+): 38%

Income:
Under $25k: 77%
$25,000 to $49,999: 64%
$50,000 to $74,999: 59%
$75,000 to $99,999: 55%
$100k or more: 53%

Living Status:
Living alone: 69%
Living w/one other: 51%
Living with 2+ others: 65%

Gender:
Female: 58%
Male: 63%

Now that I am single and sixty, I spend more time alone than I used to when I was married. However, I spend less time being lonely. I was always lonely in my marriage, not as a mother but as a wife.  I was almost never alone but was always lonely.

Here are 10 subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the two and a few suggestions on how to turn loneliness around.

1. You can be happy while you are alone. The same can’t be said for being lonely.

2. Sitting in a football stadium full of people, you can be lonely. It is not a question of numbers, but of emotions. If you are watching the football game at home by yourself, well you get it, you are just alone.

3. Some things are preferable when you are alone like reading. You might prefer to read when alone. It is great to nap while you are alone. On the other hand, if you are feeling lonely, a Saturday date-night movie by yourself might not be the best time to venture out.  

4. Sometimes being lonely might make you try something new to get over the loneliness. You might join a group or class that will allow you to learn a new skill or improve on an old hobby. The sheer making the arrangements can go a long way in helping with loneliness. And, you will meet new people and maybe form some new friendships. It feels great to take control in improving your situation, and the worst thing that can happen is that you still feel lonely. What have you got to lose? You can still be alone anytime.

5. Laughter is great for loneliness and also for when you are alone. It is hard to feel lonely when you are laughing, try it. And, it is wonderful to be alone when you want to laugh out loud.

6. On special occasions, to avoid loneliness, nothing replaces planning. If you know you are going to be lonely for Christmas, plan ahead. Do everything you can to make it better before it comes up. Let’s face it, nothing makes up for not being with loved ones, or not having loved ones around on family holidays but you can work on it. Last year I planned a movie with a friend for Christmas morning because neither of us had any plans until later in the day and it kept me from feeling so blue on the first Christmas morning in my life when I wouldn’t be with my children. I was alone when I woke up but had plans that kept me from being lonely.

7. If you want to watch a big game but it feels so lonely to do it by yourself at home, go to a nearby restaurant or bar and watch for a while. Much of the fun is just being around other people to cheer on your team. It might take care of your loneliness. But, if you want to watch alone, no shame in that either.

8.  Speaking of bars and restaurants, if you want to have a drink when you are alone, well that’s up to you. If you want to have a drink when you are lonely…don’t do it. It is nothing but a slippery slope that will just make you feel worse.

9. I hate to put this in, but cleaning makes me feel less lonely. I think because I start thinking about how great my place will look when someone comes to see it. How much all of this organization will make me happy when I finish. And, of course, I must do it while I am alone.

10. Being lonely makes me tired, in a sad sort of way. Draggy. I find that exercise helps, as much as I hate to admit it. If I exercise and I am tired, I deserve to be.  Being alone does not make me tired.

Of course, much of this is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s rooted in my experiences over my 60 years. I have to trick myself a lot in order not to feel lonely. I hope I won’t always have to do that. I don’t treat loneliness lightly, though. If you feel lonely, but you feel that it will pass or diminish over time, then that seems like a healthy attitude to me. However, if you are living under a dark cloud that never seems to go away, that probably needs help from the outside, whatever that looks like to you. (Quote source here.)

This brings us to a topic associated with being alone but not lonely, and that is solitude. In an article published in Psychology Today titled, What is Solitude?” by Hara Estroff Marano, Editor at Large of Psychology Today, she writes:

Loneliness is marked by a sense of isolation. Solitude, on the other hand, is a state of being alone without being lonely and can lead to self-awareness.

As the world spins faster and faster—or maybe it just seems that way when an email can travel around the world in fractions of a second—we mortals need a variety of ways to cope with the resulting pressures. We need to maintain some semblance of balance and some sense that we are steering the ship of our life.

Otherwise we feel overloaded, overreact to minor annoyances and feel like we can never catch up. As far as I’m concerned, one of the best ways is by seeking, and enjoying, solitude.

That said, there is an important distinction to be established right off the bat. There is a world of difference between solitude and loneliness, though the two terms are often used interchangeably.

From the outside, solitude and loneliness look a lot alike. Both are characterized by solitariness. But all resemblance ends at the surface.

Loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation. One feels that something is missing. It is possible to be with people and still feel lonely—perhaps the most bitter form of loneliness.

Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself. Solitude is desirable, a state of being alone where you provide yourself wonderful and sufficient company.

Solitude is a time that can be used for reflection, inner searching or growth or enjoyment of some kind. Deep reading requires solitude, so does experiencing the beauty of nature. Thinking and creativity usually do too.

Solitude suggests peacefulness stemming from a state of inner richness. It is a means of enjoying the quiet and whatever it brings that is satisfying and from which we draw sustenance. It is something we cultivate. Solitude is refreshing; an opportunity to renew ourselves. In other words, it replenishes us.

Loneliness is harsh, punishment, a deficiency state, a state of discontent marked by a sense of estrangement, an awareness of excess aloneness.

Solitude is something you choose. Loneliness is imposed on you by others.

We all need periods of solitude, although temperamentally we probably differ in the amount of solitude we need. Some solitude is essential; It gives us time to explore and know ourselves. It is the necessary counterpoint to intimacy, what allows us to have a self worthy of sharing. Solitude gives us a chance to regain perspective. It renews us for the challenges of life. It allows us to get (back) into the position of driving our own lives, rather than having them run by schedules and demands from without.

Solitude restores body and mind. Loneliness depletes them. (Quote source here.)

And here is one last article that reminds us that loneliness is a universal human emotion. This article is titled, Jesus Was Lonely, Too,” published on Beliefnet.com, and it is a excerpt from the book, A Touch of His Presence, by Dr. Charles Stanley,  Founder of InTouch Ministries and Pastor Emeritus (51 years) at First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Loneliness is one of the most crushing human emotions. The feelings of abandonment and isolation create an overwhelming sense of helplessness and despair. People in the throes of a heightened state of loneliness often fall prey to temptations or behaviors that are extremely atypical. It is a dangerous place to be. Jesus knows what it is like to be lonely. As the perfect Son of God, he certainly was unlike all the other children in Nazareth. And we all know that when a person is different from the crowd, they usually spend time by themselves. Shortly after he began his public ministry, many of the disciples left him when his teachings became too difficult to grasp. At the time of his greatest sorrow, the handful that remained scattered, leaving him utterly alone.

As our sympathetic High Priest who “had to be made like his brothers in every way” (Hebrews 2:17) and who “shared in [our] humanity” (Hebrews 2:14), Jesus is intimately acquainted with the devastating effect of loneliness. He is also able to come to our aid with help and hope that can lift us out of the deepest pit.

Jesus hears our heart cry. The faintest whisper of a heart that feels alone and abandoned comes before the heart of a loving Father who will go to any lengths to comfort his children. In fact, he has already gone to the extreme in offering himself on the cross and since he did not spare his only son, he will freely give us the help we need (Romans 8:32). When Hagar and her son were dying in the desert after being cast out by Sarah, God heard her feeble voice and nurtured them. When Elijah sat alone after his power encounter with the prophets of Baal, he sat down and collapsed, wondering if he was the only one left in Israel who still called on God. The Lord encouraged him with the news of many others, though he knew none of them.

Throughout the Scriptures when men and women of faith faced great challenges, God reminded them of his powerful presence, saying to them, “I am with you.” They were afraid, anxious, doubtful, and bewildered, but the awareness of God’s presence became their strength to deal with formidable odds. Lonely leaders were instilled with courage, lonely prophets with boldness, lonely apostles with hope.

Remember, God is with us. The God who is able. The God who is kind. The God who is gentle. The God who knows all our needs. The God who is faithful. The God who works all things together for good. The God who loves us with an everlasting love.

God has already turned to you through the indwelling presence of his Spirit. His face shines upon you. Turn to him and find the solace and help you need. It may come through a Scripture promise. It may come through a prayer. It may come through his still voice when you are quiet on your bed. But it will come, because he has come into your life forever.

“Jesus, you do know what loneliness is like. You understand when I come to you with my feelings and do not condemn me. Thank you for allowing me to express my inner pain to you. You are always there for me and you will never cast me out. I run into your arms.” (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with the words found in Deuteronomy 31:8 (NIV)–The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you….

Do not be afraid . . .

[And] do not be . . . 

Discouraged . . . .

YouTube Video: “Never Alone” by Teri Kelly:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here