Jamuna Rangachari shares how to use loneliness as an opportunity to connect with yourself and others.
‘Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it’s dark’ is a Zen proverb that has become quite relevant in today’s times. We have numerous so-called friends on social media and all kinds of gadgets to keep in touch with them, but very few genuine connections with people who truly understand us. Recently, I came across an 87-year old man during my morning walk. He smiled at everyone as he strolled, and his personality drew others towards him. After his walk, he went and sat on one of the benches in the colony, and many people, including me, walked up to talk to him. Soon I learned that he was grappling with Parkinson’s disease. His wife had passed away after struggling with cancer. How then, was he so cheerful? He confessed that though he went through a phase of loneliness after his wife’s death, he ultimately overcame it. He was guided by his church pastor who advised him to connect with people to drive away loneliness.
His story brought to mind my late mother-in-law, who, despite suffering from illness and several issues in the family, always connected with everyone around her and tried to help them in whatever way she could. She was never lonely because her focus was on others—never on herself. Hence, she remained a source of happiness to everyone, till the last day of her life.
Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional response to isolation. At the same time, loneliness can be felt even when one is surrounded by people. Ameeta Shah, a psychotherapist and NLP practitioner from Mumbai, observes how our world has shrunk, thanks to technology, but loneliness persists as a common problem. She says that it is because people have their own beliefs about socialising— online is better than face to face or vice versa. They have high expectations from their interaction with people and withdraw into their shell if they don’t want to deal with others.
Surveys about the factors that determine happiness say that people consistently rate love, intimacy, connection to friends and family, and social affiliation, above everything in their lives. This should come as no great surprise. Man is a social animal after all. If one observes the behaviour of chimpanzees, one will realise how they too have the need to connect and exercise the freedom to withdraw. Another interesting observation made in chimp groups is that just like humans, infractions against the social order are punished by some form of ostracism. Throughout history too, one finds that banishment has been the most severe punishment, short of torture or death, imposed by kings and potentates. Even today, in modern correctional institutions, the last penalty is solitary confinement.
In the past few years, research has examined the power of our need for contact with others and has, in fact, mapped its physiological roots. More significant is the fact that social environments influence the way cells replicate. Social context also affects immune function. Despite all the persuasive evidence of our need for connection and the clear demonstration of the influence of connection on our physiology, today, there is a worldwide epidemic of disconnection, that until now, has been regarded as a personal weakness or a distressing state, with no redeeming features. This is not at all correct. We all are born with an innate desire to connect. Even our evolution clearly shows this. It is the need to send and receive, interpret and relay increasingly complex social cues, that caused the evolution of the reasoning part of our brain. After all, it is our ability to think, to pursue long-term objectives, and to form bonds and act collectively, that allowed us to emerge as the planet’s dominant species.
Engagement with others
Despite an innate desire to connect, many undermine social interaction. While there could be special circumstances— a child who is new to school and is taking time to make friends or a person who has moved to a new country and doesn’t know the language— most of the time, it’s not a lack of social skill.
Ameeta Shah shares how a management student she knows, persistently experienced loneliness. Anu (name changed) felt people did not include her and often got their attention in the classroom by competing unfairly. In projects too, they didn’t value her. Being the only child who had been showered with attention, Anu was unprepared for the real world. She took to alienating others as a defence mechanism. She also at times acted overly helpful, people-pleasing her way through her peers. This backfired and led to her being taken for granted. As a result, she ended up moody and depressed. After undergoing inner child healing, regression therapy, hypnotherapy and NLP, as well as reflection and social skills coaching, she regained her sense of self-worth. She learned how to be assertive but diplomatic, and shed her people-pleasing habit. She also worked on understanding herself and her life’s purpose, thus programming her unconscious to see the bigger picture. Furthermore, her hyper-sensitivity and helplessness in relationships reduced. She became a happier person, allowing people to be themselves around her. Eventually, her sense of loneliness disappeared, and she felt more at ease.
Madhvi Manglik, a homemaker living in Delhi, was used to her husband, a pilot, being away from home for long periods. It was not so much a problem until her daughter left home for higher studies. To tackle her loneliness, Madhvi volunteered with an NGO, adopted a dog, and helped underprivileged people in her locality. She was resourceful and found a way to keep herself from falling into loneliness.
Lost in the crowd
That loneliness is an internal condition is clear. Most of the time it has nothing to do with external factors. So many talented and successful people with fully functional relationships also feel lonely. Janis Joplin, an erstwhile songwriter from the US, who was as shy and withdrawn off stage as she was raucous and explosive on it, said shortly before her death, that she was working on a tune called, “I just made love to 25,000 people, but I'm going home alone.” Three of the most idolized women of the twentieth century, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Princess Diana, were famously lonely people. Guru Dutt’s iconic film Kaagaz ke Phool is about a famous director whose personal life is a mess. The movie is said to be autobiographical, as the story’s similarity with Guru Dutt’s personal situation was unmistakable. Guru Dutt committed suicide at the early age of 39, despite reaching great heights as a director. Another example from the Indian film industry is Madhubala. As a heroine, she was regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world during her time and arguably, even in today’s time. She was struggling with a health challenge but did her best to combat that. What was really tragic was her personal life and unresolved relationships. She was engaged to the legendary actor Dilip Kumar. However, their relationship reportedly went sour because Madhubala’s father wasn’t happy with it. Madhubala left Dilip Kumar and subsequently, married Kishore Kumar. Things had just begun to look up for her when the doctors informed her that she won’t live long. The tragedy further worsened with Kishore Kumar buying her a house in Mumbai, only to leave her alone. I do believe loneliness had a major role to play in her misery.
Building healthy relationships
It’s important to understand and work on our relationships to strengthen them. After all, loneliness isn't about being alone; it’s about feeling all alone even when people are all around us. There are many ways to build healthy relationships. Cooperation, for instance, is a key. Moreover, it activates the ‘reward’ areas of the brain, in the same way, satisfying hunger does. Many a time, when we try to connect and cooperate, we may face rejection. In fact, social rejection activates the same areas that light up when we are subjected to physical pain, but we must take it in our stride.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging shows that when we see unfamiliar human beings or even pictures of them, our brains respond in a distinctly different way than they do when we see any other object. ‘Someone like me’ is clearly a very important factor in our mental makeup. To enable this to function effectively, we must begin seeing others as ‘someone like us.’ This can be enabled only when we recognise that others have the same emotions as us.
Our quest for independence surely has a role to play in our loneliness. We must understand we are interdependent people and were never designed to be independent. Steven Covey, in his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, has made us think and understand where we may have gone wrong. He tells us that the way to our own growth is a movement from dependence to independence and then to interdependence. He explains how we all start out life as babies completely dependent on our parents. This is a state of weakness and powerlessness. As we grow up, we work to become independent, moving out of our parent’s home, earning money for ourselves and so on. A person at this level is able to do things for himself and does not need anyone else to survive. The problem is that most of us stop here, which is actually not a healthy state to be in. True independence indicates a willingness to take complete responsibility for one’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and circumstance; in fact, life itself. We become self-reliant and strong, capable of handling any crisis that comes our way. We also develop our own value system and make decisions based on that. Gradually, we raise ourselves, straighten our spine, and finally stand tall. It is this confidence and inner strength that enables us to forge enduring bonds with others, for we are not afraid of being taken advantage of, or of being dominated by others. A truly independent person is giving, sharing and caring. Love is actually part of all our DNAs.
At the societal level, we must know that the greatest human achievements come from people recognising the principle of interdependence. This is when people work together to achieve a common goal. This is how mankind has achieved things which no single person could have done on his own. Interdependence is human development at its most mature and powerful level.
Spirituality and loneliness
Spirituality teaches us the same thing. We need to understand we all are one in this interconnected world. Satish Kaku, a guru in Mumbai, says, “A lonely person is one who has disconnected with God (Self) and when you have no God, you are lost, confused and incomplete. To move out of this situation, you need to do something to change your thoughts; you need to break the pattern and turn yourself towards the light.”
Swamini Aaradhananda of the Chinmaya Mission from Mumbai says, “The heart is never lacking in love and the world is never lacking those who need it.” Keeping this in mind, she asks everyone to shamelessly love not just humans, but animals, trees, birds and even inanimate things love. In her own life, she shares how there was a time when she felt lonely as a single woman. She later realised that being single does not mean we need to be lonely; rather, we have it in us to be there for ourself and others. She tells everyone to bond with others, not necessarily through talking, but with smiles, and silently wish people well. “Dialogue with your mind,” she says. “Pamper it, but also train it to rise above the pinpricks of life.” Pursuing interests like tarot, numerology, and reading, keep Swamini Aaradhananda busy. She recollects what Swami Chimayananda had told them, “If you can't enjoy your own company, why thrust it on others?”
Loneliness and solitude are not the same. Loneliness is a feeling, but solitude is a physical state. Even if we are in solitude, we must try not to feel lonely because solitude helps us get in touch with or engage with our true self. It allows us to reflect on ourselves, others, our life and our future. Often, solitude is a springboard to greater self-awareness and creativity, as well as fresh insights and new growth. It is something we choose and something that restores and builds us up. It grounds us in who we are and that enables us to reach out and give back to others.
Some ways to stave off loneliness
Realise that loneliness is a feeling, not a fact. Accept the feeling without overreacting.
Reach out and cultivate friendships with those who have similar interests.
Make a plan to fight the mental and emotional habits of loneliness.
Focus on the needs and feelings of others. This will help them and you.
Learn to have meaningful conversations. Talk, but most importantly, listen.
Develop hobbies; it’s never too late to begin.
Focus on commonalities between you and others, not on the differences.
Join groups that focus on special issues. Discover your interests, and if there is no group specific to your interests, create one.
Nurture your spirituality. Connecting with God will help us connect with others better.
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