The holiday season, loneliness and the constant reminders of connections past and lost.
A line of people the equivalent of a city block outside the local Rescue Mission serving free Thanksgiving dinners to the homeless, the poor and people who have no place to be and no one to be with.
A 20-something man sitting on a bench and smoking a cigarette in a park empty of other people and cars, blue jeans torn and ungloved hands trembling slightly against the cold of a shivering wind as he lifts a small Styrofoam cup of coffee to his mouth.
A 500-seat movie theater virtually empty except for the half-dozen patrons sitting alone rows apart. At the concession stand, a middle-age man – ruffled, unshaven, newspapers sticking through the tops of worn and torn boots – counts nickels and pennies to pay for a box of popcorn.
Snapshots of a Thanksgiving Day we don’t see in print and TV ads or on Hallmark cards, of people we look away to avoid seeing, people who are barraged with reminders of their loneliness by a holiday season promoted commercially as a time for for “family and friends.” People isolated from others, sometimes from themselves and some disenfranchised from society – the lonely people whose aloneness runs far more deeply and is far stronger than the “holiday blues.”
They have no use for Black Friday or Cyber Monday sales because they have no one for whom to buy. Nor do they anticipate Christmas morning and tearing open gifts they will never receive. Their days of getting from loved ones lapsed into yesterday long ago, and the memories of yesterday are sometimes the only company the lonely will get as holiday visitors.
Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician and author, wrote in 1961 that that loneliness is “the most devastating malady of the age …Like the common cold, loneliness is easy to catch, hard to cure, rarely fatal but always unpleasant and sometimes retched almost beyond bearing.” For many people, however, loneliness is not just taken for granted but accepted as a condition of their everyday life.
The lonely aren’t merely alone. Loneliness and aloneness are different conditions. A man isn’t always lonely when he’s alone, but he can be lonely when he’s not alone. Both conditions are felt more acutely during the holiday season, however, one reason that the lonely and alone are neglected in subtle messages that the holidays are for family and friends, and in images of friends and family gathered in harmonious union around a Norman Rockwell dining table in a Norman Rockwell house in a Norman Rockwell painting. That Norman Rockwell holiday season doesn’t exist for lonely, if it ever existed at all.
The reasons for being lonely or alone are diverse. They encompass a range of contributing factors from mental health conditions like depression, chronic and terminal medical illnesses and individual life experiences. And life experiences that breed loneliness are just as broad in range. There are also people who aren’t included among family and friends or in group holiday gatherings because they’re simply not liked.
Whatever the reason, the holidays and their subliminal family-oriented message bind the lonely together with a common thread – the sense that something is “wrong” with them because they have no place be and no one to be with. And that sense speaks directly to and threatens the person’s sense of self-worth and personal security. Research into the causes and residual effects of loneliness has suggested loneliness may be rooted partly in the nature of the lonely person’s past interpersonal and social relationships. If those relationships were destructive or painful, for example, a person might retreat into himself and put up barriers to keep others away – to avoid the hurt of a painful relationship.
Loneliness can be inflicted by external circumstances as well such as distance from family and friends, deaths of loved ones, incarceration and other factors that separate the lonely from others and even society itself. Additionally, psychological dynamics, some complex and interwoven with each other, can be at play.
Yet, curiously, loneliness is not a diagnostic condition in medical and psychiatric terms. Thus, the symptoms rather than the cause of loneliness are treated in therapy and counseling settings. And the treatment almost always imposes responsibility for loneliness on the individual and makes him an active participant in overcoming it. But this may not be necessarily be a bad or unsuccessful strategy.
A logical theory can be made that loneliness is the individual’s internal response to the conditions of his life that contribute to his being lonely. If so, the lonely man has a choice of how to react to and deal with being lonely. It may not be a stretch to believe that loneliness might be his strongest motivator rather than his crushing burden of life. Whether the causes of an individual’s loneliness are from external or internal circumstances, relief from loneliness comes solely from within – not without.
People who have endured loneliness in their lives but refused to succumb to it are probably more qualified than therapists and psychiatrists to counsel others in how survive loneliness. Their most valuable and effective advice to overcoming loneliness might be for the lonely man to force himself back into the life stream. If, for example, the holiday season is unusually difficult being alone, volunteer to a social service agency, the local animal shelter or homes for the elderly or disabled if for no other reason than to be around other people. An unexpected benefit might be found in being of service to someone else or a cause, that being a feeling of self-satisfaction from doing something good for someone or something else.
If medical obstacles hinder or prevent the lonely from participating in life, medical treatment should be sought.
People who share the holidays with family and friends may consider that they have a humane obligation to the lesser of their brothers. Give a dollar to the homeless person for a cup of coffee, maybe a small gesture on the giver’s part but possibly the best gift for the receiver. Or a sincere smile or “Merry Christmas” may be the most cherished acknowledgment a lonely person has not had in years.
The condition of being lonely is complex and sometimes fueled by multiple factors, conditions and circumstances. It would be inaccurate, unfeeling and insensitive to suggest that overcoming loneliness is solely the responsibility of the person who suffers it. But a kindness and even simple acknowledgment of the person who is lonely could be the single thing that makes him a little less lonely and a little more motivated to feel something better than an empty soul.
Photo Credit: Ricardo Liberato