There was a pretty amazing poll released recently which found that, post pandemic, over 67% of Americans report that they feel more alone than ever before. 62% said that they felt they had ABSOLUTELY NO ONE to talk to about their loneliness during the quarantine.
While it’s easy to blame that on the social consequences of COVID, another poll conducted a year before the pandemic found that about 47% of Americans felt lonely or isolated. That means that right around half of the people we pass on the street feel seriously lonely.
I was particularly interested in the findings in these polls, because The Hermit archetype has been a prominent feature in my life over the last couple of years. The Hermit represents a turning away from society and deliberately isolating ourselves from other people and social influences. It involves a period of solitude, meditation, and contemplation, for the purposes of spiritual growth. I’ve spent a lot of time in solitude and pondered quite a bit over the differences between being alone and being lonely.
And there ARE huge differences.
Being alone is, obviously, just a physical state of being. My body is by itself, with no other humans, in this room, or in this house, or on this trail, or in this campground. Being lonely, on the other hand, is an interpretation, a perception, a psychological/emotional state and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with whether you’re physically isolated.
About 29% of Americans live alone, which is an all time high. Again, that means that almost one third of the people we pass on the street are living in some degree of physical isolation from other humans. They are alone for a substantial period of their lives. But, going back to this new polling, 67% of Americans feel lonely and isolated. Even if you were to make the very radical assumption that every single person who lives by him or her self is de facto lonely, that still leaves around 38% of the population feeling very lonely while they’re living with other people.
So, first of all, we can see very plainly that feeling lonely doesn’t necessarily have a thing to do with being alone. We can feel every bit as lonely while we’re sharing a bed with another human as we can living out in the wilderness by ourselves.
Secondly, though, this points to a Great American Myth, which is that feeling lonely is somehow abnormal. That, if we feel lonely, there’s something wrong with us, because, after all, other people don’t feel lonely.
But they do. About 67% of us feel lonely and isolated which means that feeling that way is perfectly normal for a majority of people.
Where it becomes emotionally painful is in the perception that we somehow shouldn’t feel that way. Ever. And if we do feel that way, we’re emotionally disturbed or mentally ill or social rejects or things just never work out for us the way that they do for other people.
Perhaps we can gain a little insight by looking at another Great American Myth, which is monogamy and living happily ever after. We’re all programmed, from the time that we’re little children, to believe that someday we’re going to meet THE perfect person for us, fall deeply in love with them, and live happily ever after until we keel over in our matching rocking chairs at the age of 110.
The divorce statistics, however, tell a different story. While the divorce rate has been dropping somewhat in recent years, the percentage of marriages that will end in divorce nearly always holds at 45 to 50 percent. Which means that for about half of Americans, monogamy just doesn’t work.
Put another way, having our marriages end IS PERFECTLY NORMAL.
Despite that, having our marriages end is strongly associated with depression, hopelessness, and sometimes even domestic violence and suicide or murder. And the reason for that is . . . expectations and perceptions.
We have been taught – all evidence to the contrary – to expect our marriages to last forever and if they don’t, we feel like losers and failures. We have been culturally hypnotized – all evidence to the contrary – into the perception that everyone else’s marriages are working out just fine and it must somehow be our fault that our’s didn’t work.
Because our expectations for a, “successful,” marriage are so high (and so completely unrealistic) we are deeply hurt when they end. Suppose we were to change the marriage vows to reflect reality, though? Instead of saying, “until death do us part,” we could say, “I promise to love, honor and stay with you for six months, at which point we’ll renegotiate this contract and see if we want to exercise an option to renew it.”
Suppose, as Louise Hay suggests, we were able to simply end a relationship by saying, “I guess we’ve learned everything we’re supposed to learn from each other and it’s time to move on.”
That completely shifts the perception of what ending a relationship means. Instead of feeling sad and thinking we’re failures, we can congratulate ourselves for, “graduating,” from that very important phase of our lives and moving on.
In the same sense, we can learn to shift our perceptions of what it means to, “feel lonely.” Once we accept the fact that it’s a normal part of human existence, and that over half of the people we meet feel exactly the same way, we can actually start to look at what the feeling represents. If we’re living with someone else and we feel lonely, is it time to, “graduate,” from that relationship and move on? If we’re living by ourselves and we feel lonely, do we need to reach out more and spend more time with others? Or do we feel lonely because we’ve lost touch with ourselves, with who we really are, and we need to spend a little more time meditating, reading, and thinking?
Most of all, though, we need to remove a lot of the hidden emotional stingers about loneliness. Feeling lonely doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with us. Feeling lonely isn’t the same as being depressed, nor should it trigger depression. Being physically alone doesn’t mean that we automatically have to feel lonely. Feeling lonely isn’t something that we need to hide or be ashamed of because – guess what? – a lot of other people feel just the same way.
Once we start making those perceptual shifts about loneliness, then the statistics from these polls cease being shocking. They’re not, “alarming,” or, “a hidden mental health crisis,” or, “an epidemic of loneliness,” or any of the other hyperbolic phrases we see.
They’re just honest.
To be human is, to a certain extent, to be lonely. We are thinking, extremely emotionally complex beings, who are constantly evolving. It should come as no surprise that there are times when we feel that other people don’t understand us because there are times when we don’t understand ourselves.
And that’s okay. Feeling lonely is okay. Being alone is okay. The only thing that needs to be fixed is our perceptions and expectations.
Dan Adair is the author of, “Just the Tarot,” available on Amazon.com at a very reasonable price.