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When loneliness and feeling alone is no laughing matter

The Christmas season is usually a time when people gather and celebrate together. Paradoxically almost, it can be also a time when many people feel very lonely. The sense of loneliness can affect people who are single and in relationships, living with others or on their own. It transcends cultures, class and locality. It can affect even those who seem the most jolly and full of the joys of life. Particularly after Christmas, there’s a “let down” period. After the high adrenalin rush and the excess, there’s often a “down” time.

Christmas in the West is a big spending binge followed by a feast, a massive media-and-retail-fuelled hype, a collective energy that it’s hard not to get sucked up into. Not surprisingly there’s then a hangover, both physical and emotional. Families get together. Things are said. Agendas are revealed. Behind the jollity there can be other things going on too, ones we may not feel comfortable to address. There’s high expectations, especially for those raised on an idea of the “perfect” family Christmas, one remembered from childhood. Afterwards, when we once again find that those expectations don’t get met, there’s not surprisingly a sadness, even a depression for many.

Of course this is also a time for the religious to reflect on their connection to their faith, and this can be a time that that faith can be tested, as Christ was: “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)” (Matthew 27:46).

Allied to that, if one is aware of being alone already, this can be compounded. You’re not part of the fun. Not for you the sense of inclusion, of being part of something. Not the love that others seem to enjoy. The fact that a huge part of the human dilemma is that we are alone can still pass us by.

Existentialists say that this is after all one of the “givens” of being human, that we come into the world alone and leave it by the same route. They would say that we may dread our existence but it is for us to exercise free will and choice, to create the experience we seek. Famously, Viktor Frankl in Man’s search for meaning (1946) argued that for Auschwitz inmates to survive their enormous privations they had to continue to choose, to make meaning: “the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”. He said, “Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress”.

Thus, even in the midst of company, or on one’s own, we can feel alone, or, exercising choice, we can feel alone and, for example, at One. Our experience is our choice. We become not the victim but the master (or mistress) of our choice.

Therefore too, we can feel contented and at peace, just as much by ourselves as in the company of others.

It’s a challenge of life and living.

That’s not to say it isn’t difficult. The testimony of many thinkers and writers over time show that it can often be a very hard path. The demon of loneliness can spring out even with the hardened practitioner. So we need to develop a skill and practice so that we can recover and bring ourselves back on to our path, so that we too in time may feel contentment whatever is going on and whenever.

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Do you let loneliness get to you or choose to change?

After all the activity of Christmas comes the loneliness of January, in the depths of winter, with cold, grey, sunless days and long nights. What was all that festivity about if life is really like this? There are those who feel lonely in relationship and want a change, but there are very many today who aren’t in one and feel the lack of company very much at this time of year.

Statistics abound about the rise in the number of people in the UK living alone, around 16% in recent surveys, and in the US it is over 50%. Of course it will depend on what kind of singledom we are talking about, single parents, elderly retirees, professionals being consciously single, unmarried couples, young people, divorcees, etc. Yet, with this rise also comes increasing evidence of how loneliness is impacting people’s health and wellbeing. Such people are more likely to suffer from depression and other “mental health” problems, as well as poorer physical health and lower life expectation. As one writer states, it is the new, silent killer.

Curiously, we are social beings, having evolved over millenia in groups, the family, tribes, villages, friendships, etc. You can see how it works by observing human behaviour. When one person laughs in the room, others automatically smile. Equally one person’s upset triggers responses in others around them. We feel for others. People seek out partners in order to build the nest and have children. It is a biological driver. It is described by psychologists as a human need, to bond, connect and love. Much of a human’s difficulties in life can be put down to disconnects and breakdowns in those primal relationships early in life.

No wonder therefore that we feel the absence of such connection. We can avert our attention through distractions that abound in our current materialistically-driven society and yet it creeps up on us at some point, such as after Christmas. Some live with it, some make a virtue of it, some have given in to the reality of it reluctantly, and for some it is an ongoing pain.

Yet we can turn pain into a driver to action. This is why we have emotions after all, to draw our attention to what is perhaps out of balance. We don’t have to remain in resigned helplessness in relationship to how things seem. We can feel like we’re the only one having this experience, when in fact there’s countless numbers in the same situation. We have to find a way through what can seem like an impasse and shift our state and our attitude to one where we are motivating ourselves to reach out and make connections with others in some way. It is our own impulse to change that is the key driver for things to happen, rather than allowing ourselves to be the victim in relation to life.

It can be very hard when lonely to see where we are at. The great advantage of mindfulness is the ability to take a metacognitive approach, like the helicopter view, and observe what is happening to us and how we are thinking. We don’t always see how we are boxing ourselves in and not seeing where we have options and choices. Like the choice to connect. It is us who have to reach out, or to allow others in. It is us ourselves who change, in our minds. We can live in isolation, at the lonely end of the polarity, and then we can also live in connectedness, as One. It’s our choice.

I give life coaching to help people develop or change their relationships in some way, and create new direction. To read more, click here, and to contact me, click here.

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Being alone, being at one

How would you like to be in a box, so to speak, at your funeral, with only two people there for the funeral, neither of whom know you?

Some of you who know us may have seen by now that my wife, an Interfaith Minister, has been on regional television, and now it seems in the national press, about a case that seems to have grabbed people’s imagination here. This is about the disturbing case of a cremation she is to officiate at near us in Wiltshire in which the deceased would have only my wife and the funeral director present to mark her life.

To make her preparations for the service, Akasha went to the care home, some miles from the woman’s home town, which seemed only to be able to provide two photos and virtually no information about her. She seemed to have no family. Nobody had visited her in the 5 years she had been there. Images from Dickens’ novels come to mind. My wife came home with the pictures, one of which showed the woman as a beautiful one in her youth. “How sad”, she said, “that this woman who probably had all sorts of hopes and dreams when young, was to end her days like this and no one would come to her funeral”. She sat with the pictures some days and then she went to a local newspaper in the place where the woman had lived all her life, the Swindon Advertiser who promptly ran a story about it right after New Year’s Day. This was picked up by BBC television and away it went. Many people started to call and soon there was a group who did not know her but felt strongly about it and were determined to be there for her. What a statement! What a demonstration of human bondedness, of caring, and, who knows, perhaps a realisation that “There but for the grace of God go I”.

This is not the place to go into anything further about this woman. However, funerals are not only about marking an ending. They are often also for the living, those left behind. It got me thinking. I know there’s a part of me that separates myself from others at times, and can be very in myself. In the past, I have cut myself off from others. My father spent the last few of his 94 years house-bound and unable to read, with hardly any visitors, alone with himself.

Perhaps you might like to think about what thoughts this story brings up for you – and for the very many who find themselves in similar situations, alone in senior persons’ homes, unvisited, left to their own devices, frail, not communicated with, alone in their final years. More and more of us face this, partly because more of us are single, but also because we are living longer, perhaps running out of friends who are still alive. Also, although we live longer, we many of us are not in good health.

In the UK, the nuclear family has been in decline, the elderly living separately, their children and grandchildren in different towns or separated by distance, and with insufficient financial and social provision for the former – no longer the granny living with the family, helping with the children, the source of wisdom and respect and the transmitter of memory.

Yet, this story also shows to me that when something happens that stirs our hearts, like an old woman without anybody at her funeral, the part of us that resonates in some way with her seeming aloneness feels touched and we reach out to her and want to be there with her, to honour her life and her presence on this earth with us, as she, or at least her body form, is symbolically removed from us.

At another level, I’m also tempted to think, she may not have felt alone herself. That is an assumption. Who knows how she felt in herself. Maybe in her final days she came to feel an at-oneness with herself, to feel complete with herself and with life. Maybe she found her inner contentment.

I am also tempted to think about how aging brings us face to face with the fundamentals of existence, that we are born, grow up, will age and will die. At one level our lives are finite. Aging and old age challenges us to learn to come to be at peace with ourselves, to feel peace, joy and contentment within, or we might feel sure that we’ll find the travails of our latter years hard to deal with, Christmas feasting, wealth, status, material comfort or welfare state regardless. And at this point, we are all the same: physicality is no discriminator.

No wonder this story stirs us.

Have a happy and compassionate New Year.