Written by Heidi Scrimgeour

Voices

Alone again, or?

Heidi Scrimgeour has decided it’s time to make her peace with loneliness.

person standing on beach facing sunI thought my 30s would be many things, but lonely wasn’t one of them.

On paper I’ve got no reason to feel lonely. I’m a happily married mum of three and I’m not short of friends to help me take regular advantage of supportive grandparents (aka on-tap babysitters) living right across the street. So it was a shock to discover that you can live a fairly lovely life and yet still feel that an icy core of loneliness runs right through its centre.

Knowing you shouldn’t feel lonely doesn’t put loneliness to flight, and feeling guilty for struggling with loneliness only makes you feel it more acutely. There’s nothing quite so isolating as feeling unable to tell a mate that you sometimes feel lonely, for fear that she’ll find you pitiful and consequently leave you, well, alone.

It’s different for people whose loneliness is justified. Rightly so, friends rally round to help chase away the lonely feelings. But admitting to loneliness when you’re not companionship-challenged is like writing ‘self-absorbed’ in permanent ink across your forehead. It’s hardly a formula for attracting company.

Prevailing wisdom dictates that loneliness afflicts only the old and friendless, but that’s not the truth. My friends are exemplary yet I sometimes can’t shake the feeling that I am adrift in a sea of wild isolation, beyond reach of the deeper connectedness I crave. The busier life becomes and the more commitments I scrawl in tiny letters on the over-scheduled family calendar, the more I feel a disquieting sense of isolation.

There seems so little time for the things that I imagined would occupy my 30s: meals with mates where a gaggle of children rampage around the house as freely as the wine flows; chaotic breaks in shabby-chic rented holiday homes with more bedrooms than the kids can count, and regular weekend visits to stay with friends where we all become, if only for 48 hours at a time, a living embodiment of the village that it purportedly takes to raise a child. No wonder I feel lonely; evidently I thought my 30s would involve a tribe.

“Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, wrote: ‘The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people.’”

I’ve watched other mid-lifers seek fulfilment of this longing for greater connectedness, in unlikely new interests and friendship groups, or even in the arms of an illicit love. I’ve contemplated both but instead am embracing the possibility that it’s OK to feel lonely; that it might be a gift and not the curse I fear.

And yet, if loneliness sometimes comes from within and thus is no indictment of the quality of our relationships, then surely we shouldn’t be ashamed to admit to bouts of feeling lonely, even in a room full of friends?

Perhaps the antidote to loneliness isn’t more friends to fill the void, but more opportunities to be alone. Maybe my ‘problem’ isn’t a lack of connections but too few opportunities to disconnect.

That sentiment reverberates in the words of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who wrote: “The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people.” Instead of filling my life with relationships to buffer me against the threat of loneliness, Merton says I must learn to be at peace with loneliness, and to “prefer its reality to the illusion” of companionship.

What that means I am still working out, but I wonder if a healthy dose of solitude can help keep true loneliness at bay. The key, I suspect, to overcoming loneliness is not to try to muffle it but, in fact, to resist the urge to try extinguishing its flame – which only reignites like those never-ending birthday candles.

Maybe solitude is something to be sought, rather than avoided at all costs. Keeping company with loneliness might teach us things that companionship never will. And perhaps we can only truly appreciate life’s sweet moments of connectedness and community once we’ve made our peace with feeling lonely.

@heidiscrim

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Written by Heidi Scrimgeour

Heidi Scrimgeour is a freelance journalist who lives near the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast of Ireland with her husband and three kids. She loves baked goods, is a founding board member of Northern Ireland’s first co-operative brewery and consequently does some reluctant running.