An "Epidemic of Loneliness"?

I can’t put my finger on the exact cause, but for me, January’s been kind of a difficult month. For sure, the cold and dark days set the tone. But I’ve also been feeling extra-emotional and often on the verge of tears. For example, the city where I live (like most cities in California) has a serious problem with homelessness:  people living rough on the streets, in parks, under freeway overpasses, behind buildings.

A lot of these poor souls have dogs – even cats with them. But two days ago I saw a very scruffy looking street person – a man – with a tiny puppy that looked around four or five weeks old. I was in my car (at a stoplight), with the heat blowing as hard as it could. The man was in layers of clothing and blankets. He held the little white puppy in his large, red hands. There and then, my tears flowed:  the scene was so sad-sweet-lonely-disturbing. I’ve actually taken the time, in the past, to buy food for people who look like they really need it. But this puppy-situation seemed and felt especially bleak to me; and I felt especially helpless to ‘help’ in any meaningful way (as the cars behind me began laying-on their horns, once the light had turned green).

I continue to hear and read about how our lives have been impacted – and not in a good way – by the way we insulate ourselves from other beings by staying-busy with our electronics. The amount of time we spend on our phones and computers; the ear buds that mask the daily weirdness or boredom of a commute; the explosion of podcasts that fill our ears with whatever we think we should be learning about or catching up on. I get all of that. I’m living all of that. Still, I notice – increasingly – that when I put in my buds while I racewalk my 4 miles, I’m less inclined to take in the wonder of Nature all around me. I’m less inclined to make eye-contact with joggers and dog-walkers. I’d rather hear the tunes that motivate my rhythm than the birds filling the trees in the county island where I live.

Thinking about the way we choose to spend so much time in our own heads, very selectively (and often reluctantly) turning our attention to our jobs, families, pets and friends, I was today reminded of just how much we are capable of improving one another’s lives through human contact and caring. Among those who study such things, there’s a renewed interest in “long forgotten” research done decades ago, with severely depressed people. The kind of depression that causes the human heart to give up, and give in, to thoughts of self-destruction.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of 2019, there are twice as many suicides as there are homicides in the U.S. Turns out, the methods and studies of a man named Jerry Motto (a psychiatrist, 1921-2015) are now being re-recognized as a total no-brainer for severe depression, actually reducing the number of deaths by suicide in dramatic numbers. There’s no ‘magic’ to it:  it’s as simple as a quick, caring connection between two people. The person offering that connection – eye contact, a smile, a generic greeting — can actually be a random stranger who just notices loneliness and isolation, in whatever forms they present.

As I go about my always-full days, I often think that the faster the pace of life goes, the less people around me want to be “bothered” by humanity. What we’re learning, with statistics to prove it, is that this is actually the polar-opposite of what’s going on. Suicide-survivor Kevin Hines travels the country to share a message that could be taken directly from Dr. Motto’s studies.

As I listened to him talk about the day he decided to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, Kevin relates that someone – anyone – who ‘registered’ his presence on the Bridge, and who cared enough to ask him “Are you ok?” might have altered his decision that day. Sometimes ‘living bravely’ means being brave for someone else:  taking a chance by looking into someone’s eyes; by smiling or by starting a conversation; or, by pulling over to the curb and making sure a stranger’s ready to care for a tiny puppy. Yes, I’m like you – I’ve been smacked-down while trying to be ‘human’. But I’ve realized that I can’t allow those experiences to force me into a corner of not caring. It’s not my nature, and it’s not what I’m here for.

What Women Want

One of the coolest (eerie – cool) phenoms of the human experience is the sensation of déjà vu. It comes out of nowhere, and it’s so incredibly personal (no one else can really grasp what you’re feeling) that – if you’ve experienced it – you know that it’s impossible to describe or explain to anyone else. Scientists and mystics have their ideas about what might trigger the déjà vu response, but it’s hard to pinpoint and label a mind-body reaction that is so random and so unique to each individual who feels it.

“Little Women”, 2019, theatlantic.com

Like many words in conversation, we latch on to phrases and use them in broader contexts. Even if you’ve never had an actual déjà vu episode, you ‘get’ the phrase when it’s casually used to express “Been there, done that!” This was my Trigger today, when I read that the current film adaptation of the novel (written in two volumes, 1898 and 1899) “Little Women” has, so far, grossed the equivalent of  $109.6 million dollars worldwide. This is pretty astonishing for a number of  reasons. First, this story has been reproduced (on stage and on film) fourteen times, and still we haven’t had enough of it. I get that it’s a classic (like a good pair of basic black pants, the Little Black Dress, or Jackie O’s famously huge black-orb sunglasses). What’s remarkable is that the plot is a coming of age story – girls to women – that was written in what’s considered the Victorian era:  a time of extreme repression for women, regardless of social status.

“Alien’s” Lt. Ripley, theguardian.com

So why, when media companies have to work so hard to capture and hold our attention (so that we’ll spend our dollars to be entertained), are they looking-back to a time when women of all colors and classes were basically considered chattel ? And why have these companies apparently struck (literal) gold with this latest (Greta Gerwig) adaptation? Listening to Gerwig’s explanation, she describes fond memories of hearing her mother read the story aloud to her. For sure, “Little Women” is an inspiring tale about strong women and the solidarity they enjoy together. But strong female characters (human, superhuman, or alien) have been highlighted in films for decades now, without a single one enjoying fourteen iterations (not even Star Wars or Star Trek).

Women have always gained strength through the stories of other women:  a tradition of shared words, emotions and nurturing ‘presence’ that began a long, long time ago. Despite having lived my own very full life as a highly independent and ‘accomplished’ woman, the words of my maternal grandmother (who lived until age 93) still linger in my memory and echo in my heart exactly when I need a refresher about how to approach a personal challenge. It wasn’t just the fact that my grandmother was a woman who’d lived over nine decades and knew a thing or two about how to do that courageously (she’d had a full career as a teacher, raised a family and cared for her ill, blind, widowed mother-in-law for twenty years, in her own home). The most poignant thing my grandmother did was actively share what she’d learned:  the wisdom she’d gained as a result of some pretty tough times. I think of her stories as ‘breadcrumbs’ she left for me, hoping that as I followed my own destiny, I would feel guided, loved, supported and always safe.

untitled, by artist Peter Max

Although I’m not anywhere near my grandmother’s Level (in terms of years on the planet or wealth of life-experience), I understand that women want something very specific from ancient stories. Not just entertaining and amusing films like “Little Women”, but any and all examples – past and present —  that whisper to us how brave and capable, strong and loving, fierce and beautiful, independent and nurturing, creative and pragmatic we are. The mother in “Little Women”, Abigail March, is that reassuring voice:  the Protectress; the nurturing Empress, and wise High Priestess of myths. We yearn to express ourselves fully and freely, but to also stay connected to our roots as women. This is something we can do for one another, every day, in whatever ways that our busy live allow.

Going Where Love Leads

It’s been a ‘thing’ for awhile now:  the genuine ambivalence, angst, confusion, frustration and worry of a large segment of the population about two very primal human concerns. It’s not just a certain professional sector feeling driven to Have It All (a nod to what’s sometimes an older-generation perspective), but a specific age group feeling the urge or instinct to find a suitable mate, and, the urge or instinct to create a child. The drivers behind these emotions seem to be career trajectory, the desire for personal freedom, and some pretty complex requirements when it comes to The One, Right Timing, and Money (just the right amount, whatever that is).

“There’s an App for That” took on new meaning for me yesterday, when I read about an internet website dedicated to matching People Who Want to Parent with one another. Not a dating site. Not a donor site. A site for people who’ve given up on finding The One and are feeling antsy about experiencing the joys of parenting. “Prospective Parent Seeks Like-minded Prospective Parent”. According to the website (and a recent WSJ article about it), “over 500 babies have been born”, thanks to internet parent-pairings. (Is it weird for me to connect this to wine, plus foods like cheese and chocolate, or do others also find this concept just a little too hip?) The site’s disclaimers are what you would expect from a typical dating site:  the lack of full ‘vetting’ of the P.P. pool is a strong mandate for great care and attention on the part of anyone using the service. But that aside – a pretty strong ‘ick’ factor in itself – there are other aspects that invite exploration.

I was at the apex of my career when I met my husband who, quite a bit my senior, was on the downward slope of his. I was clear (with him) about the meaning and value of my work (personal and financial). We dated and seemed to have much in common:  not the least of which was a fairly pragmatic approach to Love. I was an extremely engaged and driven executive.  I liked the idea that my career could take center-stage (we re-located a few times, to follow my promotions). We became good friends who grew to love one another. I didn’t feel the need to marry, but also didn’t worry about losing my Self if we did. It was his strong desire, so we did.

All was well until the topic of baby-making came up. I was in my mid-thirties and – despite the chorus of voices telling me that my Bio Clock was approaching imminent melt-down – didn’t feel compelled to make a mini-me. But, once again, my husband made the pitch and, because I loved him, I listened. He’d been married before and was estranged from his adult-daughter. He wanted another chance at parenting. “I can do this. My relationship is stable and that’s the prime ingredient to creating a happy, healthy child.” The New Adventure felt right.

You just can’t get out of bed in the morning without learning something:  Next time, I’ll lock the dog out of my bedroom;  Next time, I’ll pass on the offer of ‘another round’;  Next time, I’ll resist the temptation to watch the Politics of the Day just before I close my eyes and hope for restful sleep. One of my biggest Life Lessons is that relationships – especially committed ones (marriage) – and child-rearing will test your personal mettle in ways you never fully expect or are able to prepare for. No matter how established you are in your career (being ‘set’); no matter how stable you feel – alone, or with a partner of any kind; and no matter how well you’ve researched the Major Decisions that you ultimately launch, things can go wonky.

Life doesn’t come with any guarantees. All the right ingredients (talking about a potential mate, all the ‘boxes’ might be checked) of a potentially happy outcome seem to be there. They look and feel utterly and completely normal and real; and maybe they are real. At the moment, anyway. But things change. People change. In my own situation, the death of my husband’s father (it was a very upsetting and unexpected end) threw him into a dark emotional spiral that unleashed other ‘personal demons’. Two people in partnership are in a canoe; rowing together is a necessity.

Living Bravely, where Love is concerned, begins with the simple acknowledgement that no matter how you try to plan and execute your life, expecting any kind of predictability (in Love) is folly. It all comes down to Priorities, and the courage to figure out, and live your own. Career may be your ‘love’:  so be it. If your priority is marriage and family, those are both very wonderful and exhilarating Wild Cards right there:  the potential for huge rewards, as well as devastating heartbreak. In chasing these, we might be tempted to use what appear to be practical strategies (like the Parent app) that allow us the illusion of being in control. But ultimately – as long as we’re alive and breathing — we’re going exactly where Love leads us.

Who You Really Are

It doesn’t matter to me. I can take the classical-psychology approach, or the New Age version of the topic; the lessons about Living Bravely are going to be the same.  Whether I’m ignoring Who I Really Am because my Ego’s at the wheel, or, because I’m not listening to my Inner Being (ergo, the wisdom of Divine Guidance)… the outcome’s going to be the same.

Living Bravely means living authentically. But ‘bravely’ and ‘authentically’ might be open-for-interpretation-words for many people. Me included. In fact, I tend to get tripped-up and bogged-down by too many words – one of my noticeable shortcomings / annoying habits when you meet me in real-time. Also, the meanings of words are always shifting. Ever since Disney created the “Frozen” franchise, I can’t think of the word ‘Brave’ without music and animation.

So I’ve found that, since Living Bravely is most definitely an active-participation-required creative art, the best way (as with most artistic creations) to experience whether or not I’m living authentically (bravely, true to myself, authentically) is to not overthink, but to feel.

I don’t really need to use my mind at all, to gauge whether or not I’m truly living and living truly – just my body. I reflect on all of the aspects of my Life that reveal just how engaged I am in this experience:  sleep issues (too much or too little), and health issues (strength, immune system, weight) are biggies. Also in the mix: How satisfying are my relationships? Am I bored-anxious-depressed and ready to self-medicate?  (Chocolate, cocktails, Netflix, sixteen-hour workdays – I’ve tried them all.)

Every day, all day, our bodies are sending us signals and signs as to how grounded we are in who we really are. Early in my short blogging experience I wrote a Post about why “Just Do You” (one of the major self-help slogans or mantras of the past decade) feels so hard. I speculated that (and still believe) the urge to “go along, to get along” – which women, in particular, are susceptible to – is largely to blame or credit for keeping us from following our natural instincts. The Ego wants praise and acceptance, above all things. From a New Age perspective, it’s much the same:  we haven’t been taught to listen to our Inner Being because we believe that the reality in front of our noses is ‘more real’ than anything we could ever come up with in our hearts.

But the mind-heart connection is strong. When we lie to ourselves and / or to others, we introduce toxins to our bodies. When we pretend to be what we aren’t, or choose to ignore the people we know are ‘fake’, our hearts get swallowed up by sadness and despair – even as we force that sadness down and away. If we choose the job, or person, or whatever-option we know in our gut is not right for us, the feelings are going to pop to the surface sooner or later, just like a cork in the water. They might appear as tears, or sleeplessness, or gluttony/starvation, or paralyzing anxiety.

One of the most helpful ‘tricks’ I’ve used, to avoid doing what’s not in ‘alignment’ with who I am when I’m faced with an important choice or decision, is to allow myself time to feel the answer. How many (!) instances there’ve been, where I needed to take a beat. The new job – more money and prestige – but at great personal cost;  an offer of marriage from someone I felt I didn’t fully know; taking something or someone at face-value, while my instincts flashed yellow caution lights. Anything that causes a little intake of breath, or ‘butterflies’, is the quiet whisper of my Inner Being:  Wait. Breathe. Feel. The people and opportunities of greatest value will wait for us, while we Bravely check-in with who we really are, and what we really want…living out our right to act on those desires, no matter our age or circumstance.

Living Your Own Life

Readers of my Posts might already be aware of my love-affair with effective marketing strategies. Not just because my son works in a related field (so I feel a little compelled to ‘keep up’ with the game), but because good advertising can be so amazingly clever in its subtlety and accuracy in targeting consumers. There’s a popular European river cruise company that “gets” what resonates with people who love new travel experiences:  too many places to see, and never enough time. So the advert begins with a silver-haired David-Attenborough-type talking about the precious commodity we all want more of… to live out our dreams and our pleasures.

We might be struggling with health and mortality issues, feeling driven to squeeze as much juicy adventure out of life as we can “before it’s too late”. Or, we might be locked in a 9-to-5 gig, with ‘time’ for a travel-escape feeling like it’s always just out of reach, compared to competing priorities. The Attenborough lookalike speaks to anyone and everyone who longs for the guaranteed enrichment and satisfaction that travel experiences give us. As anyone who’s traveled knows, even a trip fraught with the usual mishaps – missed connections and lost luggage, disappointing accommodations or digestive issues, still feels like a joyful, mind-expanding and valuable use of precious Time.

With the hype about the New Year and the New Decade bouncing around in my head, plus the irresistible urge to plan spring and summer travel (offsetting the gloomy days of winter for a bit) I began thinking more seriously about how I spend my Time. Travel is my ‘default’ setting for extended time off. But what about the minutes of my day that I’m not engaged in ‘work’ of some kind?  How difficult it can be, always feeling stretched or pressed by having to choose what to do (weights, or cycling?), what needs doing (the dust-bunnies the size of actual bunnies, lurking under my bed), the relationships that need caring-for (I can’t keep putting off going for drinks or hanging-out without being accused of “ghosting” friends), and finally, the Me-time that keeps me sane, and from turning into a totally unkempt cave-woman.

If I allow it, the Internet and Social Media can throw everything and everyone in the paragraph above under the bus, without my even thinking for a nanosecond about whether or not this is a good use of my Time. Before people started talking about these phenoms, now using the word ‘platforms’ to lend solidity to experiences that are anything but solid I think that people must’ve spent more time in casinos. Think about it:  all of the slots tuned to the ambient C Major; the lack of windows, and therefore a sense of timelessness; food and drink brought right to where you’ve stationed yourself. Hours pass and you realize you haven’t seen your spouse or children or dog in two days.

I recently read a quote – so rich in irony — by Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs:  “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

Sometimes social media feels exactly like that:  I may not be living someone else’s life, but so caught up in what others are doing, thinking, saying, sharing and buying that I get lulled into ignoring my own priorities. Time. There seems to be plenty of it, until there isn’t. With a New Year, and a New Decade on the launchpad, it feels like a good moment to re-consider the whole topic of real, and tangible Pleasures:  the richest and most rewarding ways of Living Life, Spending Time as the precious resource that it is.

“Until you value yourself, you will not value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.” – from “The Road Less Traveled”, by M. Scott Peck.

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