A boy goes to his mom and says, “I’m bored.” The mom replies, “Then you should stop being boring.”
This lesson applies in different variations. If I’m lonely, then I stop being alone.
In my early 20’s, I thought loneliness stemmed from feeling disconnected, and that disconnection was caused by having no people in my life who really understood me. So fixing my loneliness was about fixing the disconnection. I spent years finding people who understood me. However, when I did find a handful of people who I felt really got me, I still felt lonely.
It took me a decade before I realized that we don’t feel lonely because we’re disconnected. We feel lonely because we’ve made a habit of being alone. We can stand alone amongst other people. However, standing alone keeps us from connecting to those around us.
I was trying to fix the wrong problem. I was working on the disconnection when I should have been working on what kept me alone.
How We Become Alone
Being alone comes from separating our Self from others. It’s not about taking alone time in order to recharge. It’s the difference between “I’m alone” vs “I need some time alone”.
Introverts can take alone time in a crowded bookstore full of strangers. Being alone comes from a state of emotional separation. It’s that wall we place between us and the external. We can do this while having the physical presence of another person or having people in our lives. People who have many friends can still feel alone.
The Miriam-Webster dictionary gives three definitions for alone.
- separated from others : I want be alone
- exclusive of anyone or anything else : she alone knows why
- incomparable, unique : alone among their contemporaries in this respect
People who feel the most alone consistently hold attitudes and take actions that separate themselves, exclude themselves and hold themselves incomparable to others.
Part 1: Intentional Separation (Us-vs-Them Mentality)
A Basis for Friendship
To see how we separate, we first have to examine how we get together.
Friendships begin with interest. We talk to someone. They say something interesting and we have a conversation about it. However, common interests don’t create lasting bonds. Otherwise, we would become friends with everyone with whom we had a good conversation. Similar interests as a basis for friendship doesn’t explain why we become friends with people who have completely different interests than we do.
In time, we discover common values and ideals. However, friendship through common values and ideals doesn’t explain why atheists and those devout in their faith become friends. Vegans wouldn’t have non-vegan friends. In the real world, we see examples of friendships between people with diametrically opposed views. At the same time, we see cliques form in churches and small organizations dedicated to a particular cause, and it’s not uncommon to have cliques inside a particular belief system dislike each other.
So how do people bond if common interests and common values don’t seem to be the catalyst for lasting friendships?
I find that people build lasting connections through common problems and people grow apart when their problems no longer coincide. This is why couples especially those with children tend to lose their single friends. Their primary problems have become vastly different. The married person’s problems revolve around family and children. The single person’s problem revolves around relationships with others and themselves.
When the single person talks about their latest dating disaster, the married person is thinking I’ve already solved this problem. When the married person talks about finding good daycare, the single person is thinking how boring the problems of married life can be. Eventually marrieds and singles lose their connection because they don’t have common problems.
I look back at friends I had in junior high and high school. We didn’t become friends because of long nights playing D&D. That came later. We were all loners and outcasts in our own way. We had one shared problem that bound us together: how to make friends and relate to others while feeling so “different”. That was the problem that made us friends. Over the years as we found our own answers and went to different problems, we grew apart.
Stick two people with completely different values and belief systems on a deserted island where they have to cooperate to survive. Then stick two people with the same values and interests together at a party. Which pair do you think will form the stronger bond?
When I was 20, I was living on my own. I didn’t have many friends who were in college because I couldn’t relate to them. I was worrying about how to pay rent and trying to stretch my last few dollars for food at the end of the month. They were worried about term papers.
In my life now, the people I spend the most time with have kids, have careers, are thinking about retirement and are figuring out their changing roles and values as they get older. These are problems that I relate to. We solve them in different ways because our values though compatible aren’t similar. I feel connected hearing about how they’ve chosen to solve those issues in a way that works for them.
Problems Make Us Feel Alone
It seems that often we create problems that isolate us. Here a few common ones:
- I’m feel strongly about my values and don’t ever want to compromise them to make my life easier.
Translation: Other people compromise easily and therefore don’t understand my problems of trying to live a life that matches my values.
- I can’t understand how people can ignore the suffering around the world.
Translation: Other people are callous or oblivious and can’t understand my problems because of how deeply I feel about the inequalities in the world.
- Society is so materialistic and I can’t relate to that.
Translation: Being poor is more spiritually evolved and since I’m more spiritually evolved, other people can’t understand my problems.
These were my views in my early 20’s and kept me separate from those around me. Those views were all about making myself feel significant by bringing other people down. I thought having special problems made me special. Problems don’t make people special. Solving them does.
My views created an Us-vs-Them perspective of the world. Solving my problem required finding more Us people and to avoid Them. I wanted a special club of Us people. The problem was that all the Us people I found thought that their problems were more unique than the other Us people. We never bonded. We were still separating ourselves by one-upping each other about the uniqueness of our problems.
The Downside of Us-Vs-Them
The upside to Us-Vs-Them is that we feel special being Us. Unfortunately feeling special doesn’t outweigh the significant downside.
There will always be more Them than Us
There has to be. Otherwise, the exclusively club of Us wouldn’t be exclusive. So to maintain the exclusivity, we make more rules in our head to keep others out. We become more dependent on less people and are devastated when those people don’t reciprocate by valuing our friendship with the same mindfulness.
Finding more people to connect with seems beyond our control because we automatically put everyone in the Them column and wait for people to work their way into the Us column. The problem is no one wants to have to prove themselves in order to become friends. We end up waiting and waiting.
Us-vs-Them limits opportunities
The most successful people in the world get along with the widest range of people. It doesn’t necessarily mean they like everyone, but they get along with everyone.
It’s incredibly hard to get along with people if we view them as our inferior. That’s what an Us-vs-Them mentality cultivates. We tend to ignore Them and sometimes openly dislike Them.
However, it’s from Them that most opportunities arise. Since we run in the same circle as our Us people, any opportunities they know, we know about. Any new opportunities come from Them. That dream job you’ve always wanted, that book agent you wanted to meet will most likely be an acquaintance of Them.
It takes longer to solve problems
If we view our problems as completely unique then we can’t try what others have tried. We feel their solutions can’t be applied. Unfortunately, all the Us people we know seem to be stuck with the same problem. An Us-Vs-Them mentality forces us to solve our problems by trial and error. Trial and error is time consuming.
I’ve been one of Them for decades now. Being Them is a state of mind. It didn’t happen all at once and the process occurred over many years.
Here’s the main tenets of being Them.
1. Everyone is trying to get by the best they can.
No one wants to compromise their values. No one wants to work at a job they don’t like in order to pay rent. Everyone feels a bit isolated in their own way. Everyone does what they can to get by while avoiding doing things that make them feel bad about themselves in the morning.
2. My way of being happy is just my way of being happy.
I’m not a toy person. I like playing with toys but I find the maintenance of toys inconvenient. I have friends who love their toys. And I’m grateful they share their toys when I’m around them. I get all the benefits and none of the downside. They’re very happy acquiring more toys. I’m very happy playing with their toys. I’m not in any position to judge which way is better.
There’s no right way to be happy. There’s no such thing as a more meaningful happiness. Just because someone is doing something that would make us unhappy and unfulfilled doesn’t mean they’re unhappy or unfulfilled.
People play the society-is-too-whatever card (too materialistic, too apathetic, too whatever) too often. I have a favorite quote by Rabbi Israel Salanter, “Most men worry about their own bellies, and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people’s bellies.”
3. Everyone is special.
The object of meeting people is finding out what makes each person special. For me, everyone is a Cracker Jack box with a toy surprise at the bottom. The fun is digging for the prize.
These beliefs keep me connected to others. They keep me from being alone. They keep my problems ordinary. Raising kids, too much work, not enough fun, car making funny noises, boring yard work are ordinary problems. They’re the same problems as others in my life have. We don’t get together and talk about problems because that’s not the point of relationships. Other people aren’t there to solve our problems.
We get together to enjoy the company of people who share and understand our day-to-day issues and want to get away from them for a bit. The company of friends is our reward for trying to solve our problems. We talk movies or books. We reminisce. We talk about relationships and goals. But in the end, we realize that we all have to go back to those same day-to-day issues. When we part, I silently wish each of them all the best and hope to see them soon.
This is how I feel connected.