People really do mean well, but since we've created a culture built around achievement, significance and endurance, we're not good with loss. We don't know what to say or what to do when faced with emotional wounds. If we can't bandage it up, medicate it, meditate with it or change its diet, we leave it alone.
And when I say alone, I mean alone.
It was 1973, and I was 16 when my mother died. It was about five weeks later that the casseroles and calls stopped coming. You'd think I wouldn't feel it any more, after 45 years. But you'd be wrong.
I remember when supportive messages from friends became intermittent. I remember when invitations included a caveat: "We thought we might ask if you wanted to join us, but you're probably not up to it."
I returned every afternoon from school to an empty house. Who among my high school crowd wanted to be with me? I didn't even want to be with me.
That's when the real loneliness set in. The feeling of being on the precipice and looking out over nothing puts a metallic taste in the mouth—a taste as weird and singular as chewing tinfoil in a mouth lined with fillings.
Loneliness, at its most poignant, is unfathomable. You can't measure it. All you can do is taste it, sense it.
Lately, I've been feeling as if loneliness is getting into our national life—the way smoke from a basement fire makes its way up through a house. We're ignoring it, making small talk, or we're opening windows and looking at where it might be coming from, not even imagining that it's under our feet.
We're crying out into the wilderness, and the only voices being returning sound feral, angry and predatory. This is not a voice answering a voice; this is the howl of a pack. Some people align themselves with a group not to protect, discover and enlighten but to double-down, ramp up and let loose.
These are the folks who will do the call-and-response to your political views without ever asking you why you believe what you do.
That kind of connection isn't about friendship, support or intimacy, it's about finding other people who will help anesthetize you by aiding in your own insulation—and isolation.
Loneliness is as different from solitude as starvation is from a fast. Significant isolation can happen after a death, a separation or any kind of professional failure.
What happened to saying "Tell me about it"—without sarcasm or irony? What happened to commiseration?
We don't commiserate much anymore because we've decided that it smacks of indulgence. We suggest cures; patients are no longer consoled but instead instructed about how they can spiritually or physically bully their way back to health, the implication being that it's actually their fault.
Like poverty, ugliness or violence, loss appears to be contagious. People, even kind ones, move away as quickly as they can.
In part, that's what makes loneliness self-perpetuating: when you're really lonely, you feel like a mistake. You feel forsaken and unprepared, so you become suspicious. You figure that those willing to befriend you must be scrounging for company, so you become wary.
Be cautious when your days are filled but your heart and imagination are empty. That's the emotional equivalent of filling up on cheesy fries and Fanta.
Being in a big group, at a loud family gathering or next to a sleeping partner in a double bed can still feel lonely, because it forces you to recognize that external circumstances don't line up with your internal landscape.
At the loneliest moments, one other remarkable thing happens: In your bare-naked, honest, utterly-alone vacuum of existence, you realize the internal landscape is your home. That's when you can invite others in, if you choose. That's when you can issue invitations and mean them or offer commiseration because you have achieved, at cost, understanding and generosity.
There is, at last, solace in that.