I found myself early on a Sunday morning reading the latest issue of AARP magazine. AARP stands for American Association of Retired Persons. As a kid, I remembered associating AARP with “old people.” So yeah I’m a member of AARP. There’s still part of me that still feels a bit like I’m 23 to 27 years old only a lot more experienced and wiser. And I’ve got a long time to go before I’m financially sound to consider retirement — sigh :(.
In the AARP magazine, they had an article that characterizes those of us that are in the 50 plus age group. Some things it highlights are that most of us in this age group (at least in the U.S.) are happier than ever and are more spiritual but also lonelier. The article also mentions how more than half of us in this age group don’t have a friend to reach out to in time of need.
Hmm? I consider myself deeply spiritual … does it follow that being this way will make me lonelier?
So then I remembered my previous blog post where I shared how Mother Teresa described the U.S. as a country fraught with a “poverty of loneliness,” where many of us are sold on being independent, with our own home and family life apart from parents. In our American society, I was raised to believe that adults that have to live with their parents for financial reasons were not successful. The belief is that as kids mature, they are expected to leave the “nest,” explore and be independent.
But then I remember reading how in many cultures in the world it’s expected that as children grow up, they continue living in the same household. Adult children would grow up living with their parents, and grandparents. Whether they got married or not, had kids or not, they would still live in the same household. This setup emphasizes the importance and strength of family community over the need to look like successful independent individuals.
I was definitely sold on the need to be independent. So I felt like I’d be crowded in by parents who would constantly tell me what I should be doing. I started to think of the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where the family certainly takes away a lot of individual privacy but also removes many instances of personal loneliness. The bigger and nosier the family the less likely it would seem one could hide the bad times. So that aspect of a larger family community seems nice.
So with that “Big Fat Greek Wedding” image in mind juxtaposed against the AARP 50-something group of happier, more spiritual and lonelier characterization a questioned popped in my head.
If you are more “spiritual” are you also more lonely?
What if I lived in a “Big Fat Greek Wedding” kind of family and culture? Maybe if I lived in a European Co-housing Community there would seem to be less opportunity for feeling alone or isolated. But I wonder would that mean I’d have less time or need for the kind of quiet self-introspection one tends to associate with being “spiritual” and so would be less “spiritual.” Instead of a special personal moment of glorious sunshine realized under a large tree would my days be too filled with social interaction?
I firmly believe spirituality is an important aspect of our lives we must increasingly consider regardless of whether we are socially filled or isolated. The truth of reality is that there will be pain, illness, and death as well as pleasure, health, and vitality — and so it is the spirituality that helps us make sense of it all. But still, I wonder as I choose to take the time to blog by myself on the internet instead of getting out and immersing in people … I wonder.
Would I be less spiritual of a person if I had less alone time? I mean doesn’t living a secluded life in a monastery make one more deeply spiritual? Does living a busy social butterfly life make one less spiritual? Even more directly I wonder if they run a bit counter to each other. In other words, does “spirituality” help compensate for feelings of loneliness and isolation when we’re in times of need? Maybe if I’m spiritually “unawakened” but feel socially full, then my life is complete without any need for an “awakening” in spirituality. Or maybe in the attempt to deepen my spirituality I might tend to isolate myself and foster loneliness.
Furthermore are the feelings of loneliness and isolation more to do with personal perception rather than the number of external social interactions one has per day? Author and psychotherapist Robert A Johnson describes in his book “Balancing Heaven and Earth” of having experienced feeling very lonely when he had lived a life often filled with crowds of people, but feeling his most fulfilled and complete times in his life as a forest ranger while living in solitude. According to Robert, loneliness is different than solitude. He is quoted as saying “the only cure for loneliness is aloneness.”
So today I first made a choice to meet some familiar faces at a local group that gathers once a week. It was nice to see some familiar faces, yet I noticed at the same time where I could not connect with ease. I remember many times in the past willing myself to socialize, meet, and just “network” with people. This time I decided to back off and just sit and say hello only to those who walked by and said hello to me. I realized as I was sitting there a bit intimidated at times (like I’m often at many social settings).
I was not fully present with myself. I was may 10% present and the remaining 90% had disassociated. To the extent, I was disassociating I was abandoning being with myself. And this experience is what loneliness feels like. And so that abandonment basically left me alone — or at least with that awkward sensation of the unfulfilled longing for connection and an inability to satisfy that longing. The truth is that the connection I was missing was with myself. So I was the creator of my own feelings of loneliness despite being amongst a group of people.
I then went back home and started getting ready for my first day back from work after a nice full week of vacation. Virginia had left to meet with someone else so I was by myself and I strangely also felt alone. But there was an inner knowing that I was having difficulty being with myself despite being alone. And with the Sun out the temperature not too hot I started to visualize myself standing in the middle of a forest and in that vision I felt most safe to be more deeply myself.
So I drove to the nearest wooded park and within 5 minutes I was immersed deep in a forest. I hiked another 30 minutes to a bridge only reachable by foot or bike and completely out of cell phone reception. There were two benches both welcoming me to sit. And so I sat and saw the rich golden-ness of the day reflecting off grand green trees while the water of a local creek trickled. Time started to slow down and I had the feeling of being 12-year-old return to me. I remember when I was 12 in Summer camp riding down the Brandywine River on an inner tube wasting time away on a generously long day. That felt so nice!
I somehow feel and hear my long deceased Mother talking thru the whisper in the trees. I look up in the clear blue sky and I swear I see the faint image of two birds that seem way too high in the sky to be real … maybe I’m imagining. I come to appreciate the wonder of my 1-mile journey into a forest of trees to a nearby large river and feel the awe of different birds, sounds, creatures, and sites. Because I’m now so much in awe of a 1-mile hike near where I live, I’m now blown away by the idea of a man traveling so high in the sky (like those two birds I see) out to space. And for a moment while sitting in the chair I see how that at any level be it microscopic, in the present human scale, the grand macroscopic scale of our solar system and far beyond that at all levels there is grand wonderment infinitesimally small and infinitely large. I see that all these levels are somehow all the same and connected. And all during this time I feel more one with nature, earth, the trees, ground, air and universe and I just am me, only me, fully me, with myself, not trying to be more like this or less like that. There is no loneliness. So in a course of several hours on a lazy Sunday from early morning towards the late evening, I think I have both asked and answered my own question.
Q: If you are more “spiritual” are you also more lonely?
I am a deeply spiritual person and sometimes I’m feeling lonely and sometimes not. Spirituality doesn’t encourage loneliness — nor does loneliness inspire spirituality. Loneliness is more the result of when I abandon or ignore myself, usually with a harsh inner critic saying “you should be more like …” or “you should be able to do …” I can abandon myself when I force myself to “network” in a room full of people in a cocktail party setting. I can abandon myself also when I’m by myself at home.
And I find that for me taking a quiet soulful hike in the forest silences the inner critic that might say “come on Wilson you should be more outgoing and talking with these people” … In the forest, there are no groups of people with which “I should” talk. In the middle of a forest, I have a good excuse to counter the arguments my critic might throw at me. My inner critic is mostly accepting that when one is 30 minutes away from “civilization” in the middle of a forest it’s OK to be quiet and at peace and there’s nothing to prove or hide. And with that inner critic put at bay I can be more with myself and go into deep presence and ease with space, time and life. And with that inner critic silenced I can be more with myself and go into deep presence and ease with space and time and life. And so deeper spirituality becomes a path to a state of being where there is no loneliness.