You had me (and maybe lost me) at “Hello”

Molly and I got pedicures at different times before a trip to Florida last spring and, unplanned, selected the same polish color.
Molly and I got pedicures at different times before a trip to Florida last spring and, unplanned, selected the same polish color. Talk about connection!

“Loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named not good.”
― John Milton

On Monday afternoon, I forced myself to bundle up and head out into the late afternoon sunshine for a walk. This long, brutal winter is taking its toll on so many of us. I confess to feeling isolated, compounded by a low-level anxiety sitting squarely on my solar-plexus. Getting outside despite the ice and cold helps. As does good old-fashioned self-talk. So, as I walked, I was thinking over the changes that I’ve made in my life in the past year. So much happiness and light on one hand, so much difficulty and anxiety on the other. I wondered, “Am I happier than I was this time last year?”

Just as I pondered the question, a young man walking toward me stepped out of the tiny footpath carved in the deep snow and ice, giving me room to pass. Our eyes met, and he said, “Good afternoon! Would you be willing to be part of a documentary film project? I have one question, and you can say as much or as little as you like to answer it.” He went on to say that he is an art student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design working on a class project. I’m a sucker for college students, so willingly agreed to be filmed (despite my resemblance, in my winter gear, to a Minion from “Despicable Me”.) He lifted his camera, started rolling, and asked, “Would you say you are happier today than you were last year?”

I started laughing. What are the chances he would pose the very question I had been considering? Synchronicity on this scale cannot be ignored! For a brief moment, I felt the sun on my back and glanced at the cityscape in front of me and felt the magnitude of change my life has gone through in that year. I can’t recall exactly what I said, but in that moment my answer was, of course, “Yes!” (and that I had just been pondering that very question). After I finished speaking, the student stuck out his hand to shake mine and said, “My name is Boris, by the way. What an amazing coincidence! Thanks for helping me out.”

I’ve written quite a bit, lately, about these brief encounters with strangers. I’ve said that striking up conversations with people I’m not required to talk to has enriched my days in a variety of ways – and has helped me feel less alone in my new home. Meeting Boris was one of many happy exchanges. You can imagine, then, my immediate reaction to the new project from Oprah/Skype – “Just Say Hello” – was a positive one. The project proposes to battle loneliness, endemic in our modern,  socially isolated culture by encouraging people to simply say hello to one another. It enlists enlists a cadre of celebrities and even has a theme song, written and performed by Rita Wilson. I 100% endorse the concept – and, as you know, I really work to practice it.

But.

Meaningful connection is what is needed to combat loneliness. It isn’t simply a matter of how many people say “hello” over the course of a day, though that can help. It is much more important that we find and connect with people who understand us, love us, upon whom we can rely. In her August 2013 article on Slate.com, Jessica Olien cites the research and concludes: “Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Loneliness is breaking our hearts, but as a culture we rarely talk about it..” (see the article, here) We don’t talk about it, because admitting we’re lonely, no matter how many of us are, makes us feel like losers. In my experience, we tend to hide the things we think make us look bad – which, when the issue is loneliness, means that we tend to shut ourselves off and self-isolate even further.

My fear is that the “Just Say Hello” campaign will turn out to be just another one of those touchy-feely-celebrities-making-themselves-look-approachable campaigns that will dissipate into nothingness. And reading the #justsayhello on Twitter didn’t exactly allay my fears – 140 characters is way more than double what it takes most people to say “Hello, Oprah” (even the ones begging her to follow them back, plz!). In my humble opinion, we have more than enough sound-byte inspiration and motivational memes. What we don’t have is enough people making it past that first 140 characters of interaction into the realm of real relationship. And I’m not dissing Twitter here (or other social media, for that matter) – I know a number of people who have developed friendships IRL from Twitter interactions. My own life has taught me, though, just how hard that shift from “Hello stranger” to “Hello friend” can be – how much more work, time, shared experiences it takes.

Over this past week, I’ve followed Oprah Magazine’s on-line efforts with the “Just Say Hello” campaign, and I’ve been heartened to see that they are taking it further. There have been stories about how that first howdy has led to lasting friendships, stories attempting to de-stigmatize loneliness by sharing statistics and causes, stories encouraging people to reach out. The focus is often on how you may not know what your “hello” means to someone else, though. On how you can help someone else who is lonely. I don’t take issue with that – I simply want to add to it:

My name is Jenion, and I am lonely. Even though sometimes I feel like a loser right now (and I HATE admitting that and would prefer to pretend I’m fine) I know it will change, that I won’t always feel this way. The power to change that resides within me – and I can be proactive in bringing it about. First, instead of curling into myself and isolating, I need to make extra effort to stay connected to loved ones both near and far. Rather than hiding my loneliness, I need to expose it so that those who WILL support and love me CAN. Second, I need to keep saying hello. Right now, most of the people I see in a given day are strangers. None of them will become friends if I remain silent when we meet. Third, I need to stop being ashamed of my loneliness. Given my current life circumstances, it’s pretty normal to feel this way.

If, like me, YOU are lonely, I encourage you to do the same. Being lonely does not have to be chronic or debilitating. If it makes it easier to reach out, focus on helping someone else – in the end, the life you save may be your own. By all means, just say hello. But whenever possible, take it one step further. Don’t let it stop at hello, take it one step beyond hello into the realm of true connection.

“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities; but to know someone who thinks & feels with us, & who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Matt and Zoe Rose being silly at the park!
Matt and Zoe Rose, part of my “world garden”, being silly at the park!

Imaginary vs Real (or Polyanna vs Jenion)

When you write about your own life and its emotional and spiritual peaks and valleys, you want to find ways to connect that experience to other people’s inner lives so that they will be comforted (“I’m not the only person who ever felt that way”) or maybe even inspired (“It IS possible to achieve/get past/change my perspective on that!). Barring comfort and inspiration, perhaps readers will at least be able to think, “Oh, thank God that wasn’t me!”.  These are things I hope for, anyway, when I post my weekly blog reflection. The problem is that this desire can lead to writing not about my actual life, but about my imagined one – you know, that fictional life where everything makes sense and has some ultimate form of meaning. Before I know it, every post purports to be about some lesson or insight that encapsulates the world, ties up my experiences in little yellow sunshiny bows, and makes me sound like a Pollyanna.

Which I am not.

In my real, as opposed to imaginal, life, I am “hanging in there”. Not being as proactive as I probably should be, but not doing nothing, either. It’s the dry land equivalent of treading water – I’m keeping myself afloat, but not really going anywhere. Because I am especially self-focused right now, I have a tendency to be in close-up view, the scene pulled in tight on me: surrounded by space, arms and legs working hard but staying in one place. If the scene zooms out, there is a huge body of life around me, heavily populated. Some people are moving in swift racing form, others playing around with friends and loved ones, still others battling a rip-tide that threatens to pull them under. Eventually, in this wide-view, you’ll spot me, off by myself, seemingly holding still.

In my real life, I’m lonely a lot of the time. There’s a rabbit-hole that is easy to wander down when you feel lonely. It takes you to a place where you allow yourself to think that other people are responsible for your happiness. And your inner voice becomes petulant and whiny, like the nine year old you once were, complaining that someone “stole” your friend. I hate hearing my own voice sound that way, hate this particular rabbit-hole. I do my best to avoid it, but it isn’t always easy to recognize until I’m in and suddenly tune in to the whining.

In my real life, my old friend, Generalized Fear, arrives at my doorstep most days. He barges in and sits for a spell, even when I tell him in the strictest terms to go away. People sometimes ask which I’m more afraid of – success or failure. I laugh at that question, because I fear them equally, as I fear most things. That’s what GF has taught me over a lifetime of hanging out together (even though I haven’t wanted him in my life).

But here’s another truth about my real life – and I’m not imagining it at all – every day I feel more convinced that I am in the right place.

When I picked Minneapolis, I had good, solid reasons for doing so. My awesome life coach, Charlynn Avery, gave me the assignment of researching which cities met certain criteria based on the lifestyle I hoped to establish. Minneapolis came out at or near the top of every configuration I tried. I also had a gut feeling, based on numerous visits over the past few years, that it would be a good fit for me.

When I opted to take this quirky apartment in the same building as Mike’s, I said I was doing so for expedience – it was a good deal, in a neighborhood that may not be perfect but at least I was familiar with. Mike would be easy to find if I had questions or needed anything. But my intuition also whispered that this was a good place for me to begin.

I’m not always a good one for trusting my gut feelings or intuition. And most of my family and friends don’t trust them either – so there were many concerns expressed and questions asked about my choice. I mostly responded with the facts, rather than get too caught up in a discussion of feelings. I guess I wanted people to think I had thought this through very carefully, weighed all the evidence and possibilities, and chosen the one that made the most objective sense. And I did…but the actual decision was based on my heart – my intuition and guts led my heart to be set on this place.

It is too soon to know how this will all turn out. How hard or how easy will it be to establish myself here. I don’t have any sense, yet, of how or where I will make a living, for example. I haven’t actually made new friends, though I’ve met some cool people and had some great experiences.

I remember being here a couple of years ago in mid-winter, a snow storm raging around me. I bundled up against the below-zero temps and headed to the Starbucks two blocks up. As I drank my very hot Americano surrounded by the Somali cabdrivers who hang out there between fares, I had a vision of myself living here. Walking to markets, to coffeeshops, to little organic restaurants. Feeling at home with the beat and pulse of life in this city. Not even the winter reality deterred the appeal of that vision. But it was just my imagination.

In my real life, late afternoon yesterday found me walking to The Wedge, a grocery coop not far from here. On the way, I discovered a tiny farmers market in the church parking lot across the street from Starbucks. I took a detour to check out a small florist around the corner on Nicolette. As I walked, I knew which cross streets were one way, which had stop signs or not. I watched for familiar sights along the way (particularly some lovely gardens), nodded at other people passing on the sidewalk. I had the sudden realization that I am growing to love my neighborhood – and that my definition of neighborhood is expanding as my comfort level with the area is expanding. I could envision the same walk through the changing seasons. Later, as I ate the nutritious meal I prepared from my purchases at The Wedge, I looked around my strange little apartment and felt at home.

Maybe there IS a lesson here, an insight about trusting our intuition. Real life isn’t always easy, it is sometimes messy and frustrating and lonely. We don’t always like the person we see in the mirror (or hear in our heads). But there are bigger pictures and deeper truths that exist at the same time, within the same space, as all the flawed realities.

And if that ties things up too neatly, or makes me sound like a Pollyanna…then so be it.

The Big Lonely

Avoidance and denial, my old friends. Back in the day, we hung together pretty tightly – in fact, we were what you might have called inseparable. I fed them all the emotions I preferred not to feel, and they shielded me from facing the harsher realities of my life. We made quite a team, living together inside the 352 pound flesh shell we built – soft, warm, protective.

Looking back, I know we weren’t exactly happy. But most days we felt like we could face whatever came our way. Or deflect it without much emotional impact. My friends would say, “I’m lonely,” or “I just wish I could meet someone”, and we would respond, “Why dwell on it? You can’t change it, and it only makes you unhappy.”

Man, have times changed. I kicked Avoidance out somewhere around 280 pounds, and Denial, while more tenacious, left shortly thereafter. For the most part, I haven’t missed them. My life has, in virtually every way, been so much lighter (brighter, less weighty, happier) without them. Oh, they visit briefly, from time to time, but its much easier to say goodbye each time. We just don’t have that much in common anymore. Breaking up was hard to do, but I don’t miss them as my BFFs.

Well, except in one way. These days, I’m feeling my feelings. Something that I never really had to do before if I chose not to – Avoidance and Denial (and the protective layer of 138 pounds I don’t carry now) took care of that for me. I’ve alluded to this in previous blog posts, mostly as one item in a list, or as something that I was acknowledging but didn’t want to get into. But here’s the honest truth: I have never felt this lonely.

How strange to say that at this point in my life. After all, I am – truly – happier than I have ever been. I have better, more fulfilling, relationships than I ever expected. My family and friends are with me, daily, enriching every experience and showering me with love and blessings. From the midst of this embarrassment of riches, I feel like an ungrateful or spoiled child to admit that I am still lonely. And yet, there it is.

Many times, I have refrained from talking about this, because I don’t want to appear pathetic, or upset my friends, or worst of all become a broken record on this point. Talking about my loneliness makes those who love me uncomfortable, because they can’t fix it. Instead, they try to cheer me up with stories about those who found a soulmate when they least expected, or by sharing their belief that one is waiting just around the bend for me, or by urging me to turn my eyes and heart to God.

Let me tell you this, so I can get it off my chest once and for all: I will be 50 years old this summer. I have never been part of a couple (not in the sense of two people who live together and make decisions together). Certainly I have given and received love, but never at the level of true intimacy which requires full participation and commitment from both people. And I have wanted this. Even when Avoidance and Denial helped me to hold the longing in check, and hide the depth of my loneliness from others (and, to a certain extent, from myself). So there is a reservoir of emotion which grew wide and deep all those years I had it dammed up. Without my old BFFs, I am swimming in it.  And for crying out loud, don’t bring up God right now, because the anger I’m not directing at myself is being quite forcefully directed at him. Right or wrong, that’s how I feel.

And there you have it. Once you stop denying that you have feelings, and start feeling your emotions, you feel them all. You don’t get to pick and choose. And the truth is, its really ok, even experiencing “The Big Lonely”, or deep anger. In one song, Lady Antebellum sings, “I guess I’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all.” I would amend that to “I guess I’d rather feel it all than feel nothing.”  And feeling my own anger or loneliness is a small price to pay for also feeling the joy that I sometimes experience with those I love – or for the contentment that mostly suffuses my days.

Joy and Contentment – way better BFFs than Avoidance and Denial, at any price.