Being Lonely Does Make You Weak

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man, is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” John Donne

“Isolation is inherently traumatizing.” Sue Johnson

“Loneliness doth make cowards of us all.” John Bowlby

Among the many torture techniques used in prisoner of war camps, extreme isolation may be the worst. That’s a bold statement, I know. But its not mine. It comes straight from the mouth of a POW survivor. “Its an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” And when he says other mistreatment, he means the times he had his arms and legs broken, got dysentery to a point that allowed him no nourishment, and was starved to a body weight under a hundred pounds. And that’s just to name a few. That man, by the way, is John McCain.

Consistently, its been found that those who survive such extreme isolation do it by maintaining some sort of human connection. They find creative ways to communicate with a fellow POW, by morse code tapped on walls or notes written on toilet paper and slipped through cracks. And when that’s not possible, the memory of a loved one provides this life saving connection. Many literally carry on imaginary conversations with a wife or a child. And for those with faith, God becomes a close companion. And this invisible tethering to a loved one gets them through it.

This is true of isolation in general. I remember watching a documentary on a guy who survived a near death experience on Everest. He succumbed to altitude sickness somewhere near the last ascent to the peak. Nearly hypothermic, badly frostbitten, and almost unconscious. he was abandoned to death by all other passing climbers. But the faculties of his heart were well intact. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing his wife and children. And driven by this connection alone, he climbed down the mountain and stumbled alive into camp. Believe it or not, this man was in the process of divorcing his wife before the whole trip. Not only was his life saved, but not too surprisingly, so was his marriage. He got home and canceled the divorce.

We live in a culture that values highly our individuality. And this is fine. I like picking out my own clothes. And I like having the right to my own opinion and my own vote. Its good that we are empowered to pursue our individual dreams and desires. But its gotten away from us. We’ve come to equate maturity with self sufficiency. When I can be perfectly fine on my own, I’ve arrived at adulthood.

Our whole society runs on this ideal. We leave our homes at 18… and these days even our home towns. We live in houses with attached garages and thus go from our big wooden boxes into our little gas powered metal ones without having to say hi to a neighbor. Our meals are fast food and rarely shared at a dinner table. We get our coffee from drive thru’s too. We work from virtual offices now and bank from cellphones. We don’t need community to survive like other societies. For us its become a luxury. And the fruit of all this is a deeply lonely and isolated life. We are a relationally malnourished people.

And its killing us. Literally. Studies have been done to show that those that loneliness raises blood pressure and effectively doubles our risk of a heart attack or stroke. As expert Sue Johnson says, “Isolation is a more serious health risk than smoking.” Prolonged loneliness and isolation are hazardous to your health, let alone your soul.

We have lost the awareness that we are relational beings. I think we all know this deep in our bones: we need people. There, in the secret of our own homes, we let ourselves admit we feel alone. But rarely do we feel our loneliness without shame. We usually feel embarrassed for feeling lonely. We take ourselves to be pretty desperate and pathetic. Why can’t you just be more okay for being on our own? we say to ourselves, Only losers feel alone.

The truth is we are wired to need each other. Current research on adult relationships tells us our need for attachment is not something we outgrow. You don’t leave it behind in childhood. We need close connections our whole life. Independence is not a sign of maturity. Its not even the way to find yourself. Its interdependence. Interdependence is the ability to connect to others, to give and receive love with closest people in our lives, and to do this with pleasure, not embarrassment. This is how we grow up. As Salvador Minuchin, a famous family relationships researcher, once said, “To be connected is to be more fully oneself.”

We get two things from our connection to others: comfort and courage. Studies prove that people who have good, close relationships are also the greatest risk takers (well, second to the truly crazy who don’t feel fear). Strength comes in numbers as they say. This is implicit in the very idea of encouragement. To encourage someone literally means to fill them with courage. This is the reason POW’s survived pure torture when with the other men, yet suffered the worst when alone. In this way its actually true that being alone makes us weak. Not pathetic, but weakened, taxed, less able to cope with any given mental or physical battle. And therefore less courageous. Courage comes from connection.

We also get comfort from our connection to others. Our heart rate lowers in the presence of those we love. The release of the stress hormone Cortisol slows way down. And we get a shot of the connection hormone, Oxytocin. Even looking at the picture of a loved one brings these changes. We feel okay again about ourselves and the world suddenly feels less hostile. I am always amazed how talking to a good friend on the phone can calm me down or make me feel less crazy.

So what’s my point? Treat your heart with more kindness. You are lonely, not because you’re a loser. Its because its the shape of your heart. As folk guitarist David Wilcox says,
“When I get lonely ah, that’s only a sign
Some room is empty, and that room is there by design
If I feel hollow – that’s just my proof that there’s more
For me to follow – that’s what the lonely is for.”
Your stomach growls when it needs food. You yawn when we need sleep. And your heart gets lonely when it needs people.

My first hunting trip schooled me on this fact. I wasn’t near death. But I did spend an entire day alone in the woods. At the pitch black hour of 4 AM, my hunting buddies and I shot out of bed. In our half asleep stupor, we stuffed a little food in our mouths, donned our battle fatigues, armed ourselves for blood, and scattered to the four corners of the woods. All of this took about 15 minutes. And then I was alone stumbling half awake down a trail into the dark ominous wilderness.

The sun made its lazy ark across much blue sky. I saw no elk. Yet the day was more disruptive than disappointing. This was not hunting. It was armed solitude. And the isolation took its toll on my heart. I hiked out that night after dark, in the middle of a rainstorm, with only the guidance of my headlamp. And when I’d finally slumped onto my rain soaked sleeping bag, I cried. Yep. I was dying to see my hunting buddies. I ached to talk to my wife. Someone. It was another hour before my friends joined me back at camp. And you’d think I’d been rescued off an island.

I didn’t tell any of them. And the rest of the night I struggled feeling so pathetic. You cried on a hunting trip, dude. Hand in your man card! laughed my shame and contempt. The next year I actually got up the nerve to tell one of them how lonely I get on hunting trips. “Me too.” I was shocked. And we commiserated over our stories of the hardest moments we’ve endured hunting. It gave me great relief. And freedom from a lot of shame.

Let me tell you again what I’ve learned with much battle. You are lonely because its the shape of your heart to need people, not because you’re a loser.

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