Boston Women’s Journal - August/September 2008
How I’ve been a therapist since the 70’s, and have seen and done many kinds of work with a lot of different types of people. I’ve been a mental health worker at a state mental hospital, a Geriatric Care Manager working with elders, a program coordinator for disabled children, and am now a private practitioner in alternative psychotherapy, Shamanic trainer, and Medical Intuitive. The issue I’m about to address has come up in every one of these environments. Today I want to talk about a topic that makes me squirm a bit. It bites down into our deep fear as social creatures and humans. Loneliness.
Why is the idea of loneliness so difficult to talk about? What is the difference between loneliness and autonomy? Shouldn’t we all be able to “stand on our own two feet”? All of these questions challenge Western cultural ideals that are great at 21, but not so terrific at 50 or 80. I’m convinced that loneliness should be on the list of the top ten killers of people, as it certainly saps the will to live in many cases.
When we are young adults and teens autonomy and separation are appropriate and developmentally to be desired. But then we scatter across the globe from our families and have no one to call in an emergency. People used to be born, grow up, and settle down within miles of their birthplace. They knew all their aunts and uncles and cousins and spent countless hours at family parties. I grew up that way, then moved 200 miles away. My daughter grew up seeing her cousins four times a year and other relatives even less. She is much the poorer for it. Yes she is autonomous, but she has lost a valuable safety net that won’t be there after her parents are gone. I may not always have liked my cousins, but as the old saw goes “they have to take me in cause I am kin”. No such value applies now. I am blessed to have a wide and deep group of friends, but I still ache for the easy days of dropping in on my aunt and uncle unannounced and expecting dinner to be there for me, along with ears willing to listen to the triumphs and tribulations of my day.
We are all so vulnerable in our private little worlds with whatever family we have scattered far and wide. A client of mine in Texas said to me recently, “I own this successful business, make good money, have all the things I want materially, but I got the shock of my life yesterday. I ate a strawberry plate at a local restaurant, got food poisoning and landed in the hospital. I was pretty sure I was going to die, or at least I wanted to. When they gave me that form to fill out asking who to contact in an emergency I couldn’t think of anyone. My ex? My parents in another state (both with serious mental and physical problems)? My best friend 100 miles away? It frightened me that I was so alone.”
The time to think about these things is before you eat that strawberry. There are ways to establish a community in partnership with your long-distance family members and your friends. We are in fact all in the same boat. It requires some thought, a good deal of planning, and some patience. It also requires really being honest with yourself about what you need from your relationships now, and on an ongoing basis.
What has this autonomy cost us? Perhaps I can quote you the concept better than I can say it. I just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s book “A Man Without a Country.” I’ve been a fan of his since before I had any idea what he was really talking about. Apologies posthumously, I’m sharply editing here Kurt, so excuse me for trying to make my point with your words. “Let’s talk about women . . . I know what women want: a whole lot of people to talk to … What do men want? . . . a lot of pals and they wish people wouldn’t get so mad at them. Why are so many people getting divorced today? It’s because most don’t have extended families . . . most of us when we get married today are just one more person for the other person . . . when a couple gets into an argument about money or power it’s really saying ‘You are not enough people.’ A husband, a wife, and some kids is not a family, it’s a terribly vulnerable survival unit. I met a man once . . . an Ibo tribesman who had 600 relatives in his extended family and he knew them all . . . This man and his wife had a baby and everyone in that family who was big enough was going to hold, cuddle and gurgle at that baby. Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?”
I know I would have.