An anti-loneliness campaign

CARPNews recently published a letter from a Brockville, Ont., gentleman who was anguishing about his loneliness since the death of his wife. Later, he wrote again to express his astonishment at having received an avalanche of letters from fellow CARP members who identified with his feelings.

But this massive sympathetic outpouring isn’t surprising. All of us, at some stage in our lives, know something about the pain of loneliness. This has been confirmed by Dr. Vello Sermat, a York University psychologist who has spent several years studying human loneliness. He has concluded that loneliness is something that happens "to men and women of all walks of life and has reached epidemic proportions among modern urban dwellers."

Older Canadians are particularly vulnerable. Children grow up and move away. Death removes family members and friends; retirement deprives them of interaction with former co-workers.

However, loneliness is not confined to any particular group in our society. It even descends on those who appear "to have it all." When at the peak of her career, the beautiful and talented actress Faye Dunaway confessed, "I’often haunted by the fear of not being loved by anyone… the fear of final loneliness." And the late tycoon, Lord Roy Thomson, once complained, "It’s pretty lonely here on top."

Most lonely people suffer in silence because it’s not socially acceptable to complain. Professor Sermat elaborates, "At a party, you can tell the person next to you that you’re angry, happy, jealous, or sexy but you must never admit you’re lonely. It’s just not done. Loneliness is equated with failure and rejection." Because of this conspiracy of silence, most lonely people feel they’re highly unusual, victims of a rare condition.

What, exactly, is this feeling of loneliness? Listen to these descriptions offered by the experts on the subject, the chronically lonely themselves.

  • "I’m cut off, sad, just putting in time. There’s nobody to listen to me. I’m all alone."

  • "I have trouble breaking down the barriers that separate me from other people. I feel desolate."

  • "It’s this feeling of having no relationship with another member of the human race. This feeling of separation hurts."
  • Now for the good news about loneliness.

    If you’re feeling lonely, you need not continue in that state of mind. Loneliness is a treatable condition. Based on interviews conducted with several experts in human behaviour, here are five tips which can help you connect with the rest of the world.

    1. To begin with, recognize that "being lonely" and "being alone" are two entirely different things. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, rejected or depressed if you don’t have company. Being alone can be enjoyable, desirable — even rewarding. It can be a time of renewal and rest. It provides you with the opportunity to pursue special interests, think through problems and make plans for the future without being distracted.

    2. The ultimate antidote to loneliness is to establish a close relationship with one (or more) totally trustworthy human beings with whom you can communicate honestly without fear, shame or threat. Obviously, if you’re a shy, lonely person it isn’t easy to form such a relationship. It’s likely you would hesitate to approach someone at other than a superficial level for fear of rejection. However, there’s a less threatening strategy: Deliberately seek out and never turn down opportunities to work with other people. Consider the experiences of one lonely woman who followed this advice. She recalls, "In the past six months I have joined volunteer groups canvassing for the Red Cross and Cancer Society, became active in a campaign to save an historic building, and helped run a rummage sale for a neighbourhood charity. As a result of the contacts I made, I’ve made a close woman friend and met two other people I can phone if I want company for a dinner or a movie."

    3. Once you have acquired a friend, maintain the relationship by nurturing it. Avoid demanding too much or being too timid. Don’t expect perfection — nobody’s perfect. Resist drawing up a mental list of desirable traits and insisting your prospective friend possess all of them before you accept him or her. Unless you bend a bit, you’ll continue to be a very lonely person.

  • An effective way to break out of your prison of loneliness is to start doing things for other people. While expending your energy as a Good Samaritan, you’re less likely to dwell on your own troubles. Entering another person’s life and sharing their problems breaks down the barrier that separates people. Professor Sermat says, "If you can be of value to another person, you get a new slant on yourself. Your sense of worth is enhanced because you’re admired and valued by others."

  • According to an old maxim, "To be loved, you have to be lovable." Make sure you’re not chasing away prospective friends by being completely disagreeable. A lonely person who expresses hurt or disappointment by constantly complaining and criticizing is unlikely to attract friendships. Lighten up! Make a conscious effort to be positive and agreeable.
  • Abraham Lincoln once said that "one can be as happy or unhappy as one decides to be." The same is true of loneliness. By taking a fresh and candid view of your situation and launching a constructive anti-loneliness campaign, you stand an excellent chance of banishing loneliness from your life.